Florida releases draft land-based shark fishing regulations

After months of expert and public consultation, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has announced the draft text of new regulations that will govern land-based shark fishing. It’s mostly very good news that directly addresses most of our concerns! 

A review of the problem
Land-based anglers in Florida (those who fish from beaches, docks, and piers) catch large numbers of threatened, protected species, handling them in needlessly cruel ways that likely result in mortality or permanent injury. Anglers are aware that what they’re doing causes harm to certain species and violates some existing regulations. Hammerhead sharks in particular are extremely physiologically vulnerable and need to be released much faster than they are currently being released or else they will very likely die. 

(Learn more: see my paper on this subject, my blog post summarizing that paper, an open letter calling for action, an op-ed I wrote about thisa review of the existing rules and how they’re regularly violated, and a years-old blog post describing one problematic incident with land-based shark fishing)

A review of the solutions we suggested

In my open letter and in a policy brief that I sent directly to Florida commissioners, we outlined several specific, easily achievable policy solutions that will protect threatened species from being pointlessly killed without infringing on the rights of rule-following, conservation-minded anglers. These include:

  • Make sure that sharks are left in deep enough water that their gills are submerged at all times (since even a few minutes of air exposure can cause permanent gill damage, and microabrasions from sand may also cause permanent damage; Land-based anglers commonly drag sharks totally out of the water and leave them there for several minutes).
  • Gear requirements such as higher-powered reels that reduce fight time and circle hooks that reduce gut hooking.
  • Clarify to anglers and law enforcement officers that delaying the release of a prohibited species to pose for a photograph or measure the catch is illegal, protected species must be released immediately.
  •  Fight times must be limited, particularly for physiologically vulnerable hammerhead sharks. After a certain amount of fight time, anglers must be required to cut the line and release the shark (trailing some line behind it is not great for a shark, but fighting it for a long time and dragging it onto the beach will result in a dead hammerhead).
  • Florida fishing tournaments must be prevented from having award categories for prohibited species, since it is illegal to delay the release of a prohibited species to measure it or pose for a photograph and fishing tournaments require anglers to do this.
  • Consider changing rules so that it is illegal to land prohibited species caught in adjacent jurisdictions in Florida ports. (This is a bonkers rule that isn’t the case for anything else that’s banned in Florida waters).
  • Consider taking advantage of interstate agreements like Fisheries Management Councils and the NOAA HMS advisory panel to encourage neighboring jurisdictions to enact comparable protections.

Here’s what the proposed new regulations say

A person may not remove a prohibited species from Florida Waters. The gills of a prohibited species must remain submerged and the entire length of the organism must remain in the water.

This is great news, full stop. If more people follow this rule, fewer sharks of protected species will die in Florida waters as as result of land-based fishing practices, even if nothing else changes. I only hope that this will actually get enforced.

A person who catches a prohibited species while fishing from shore must release such prohibited species immediately at the site of capture, without unnecessary harm. Delaying the release of a prohibited species for any period of time longer than necessary to remove the hook or other fishing tackle is prohibited.

There’s good and bad here. All of this sounds great, but I wish it clarified that A) Delaying release unnecessarily includes measuring your catch or posing for a photo with it (as is already stated in the FWC best practices guide for saltwater fishing) and B) in the case of physiologically fragile hammerhead sharks, releasing it ASAP means not fighting it for so long that you can remove the hook. Removing the hook is not vital for hammerhead shark post-release survival, but a short fight time is.

Required gear:

(a) Non-stainless-steel circle hooks. A person targeting or harvesting sharks from Florida Waters must use non-stainless-steel circle hooks when fishing with live or dead natural bait. “Circle hook” means a fishing hook designed and manufactured so that the point is not offset and is turned perpendicularly back to the shank to form a general circular or oval shape.

(b) Cutting devices. A person targeting or harvesting sharks from Florida Waters must have in his or her possession at least one device capable of quickly cutting either the leader or the hook used. A person catching but not retaining a shark must quickly remove the hook or use such cutting device to quickly remove as much tackle and fishing gear as possible in order to release the shark immediately without unnecessary harm.

This is mostly good. These gear types will reduce “foul hooking” and will allow hooks that are left in a shark’s mouth to quickly rust and fall out. (Which is all the more reason to not require removing the hook from a hammerhead shark’s mouth since hooks will now rust out quickly…?) I wish there was more of a focus on gear that reduced fight times, the gear we used to catch large adult hammerheads during my Ph.D. research meant that a shark could be landed in 5-10 minutes, the gear that many anglers use takes hours, and hammerheads often die after forty minutes or so on the line.

Staff will update these guidelines with any regulatory changes and once finalized, will print the guidelines in brochure format, and distribute it to shark and non-shark anglers that fish from both vessel or shore and to SBSF tournaments. (emphasis mine, this is from the accompanying PowerPoint and not the regulations themselves.)

This is good news that isn’t explained particularly well. As near as I can tell from conversations with my FWC contacts, this means that while they aren’t specifically banning land-based shark fishing tournaments from targeting threatened species, they are stating that all these rules also apply to tournaments. This means that you can’t land a protected species or delay  release to measure it. 

(3) Shore-based shark fishing permit.

(a) A person may not participate in shore-based shark fishing unless such person has been issued and is in possession of a valid Commission-issued shore-based shark fishing permit.

.(b) Shore-based shark fishing permits shall only be issued upon completion of a Commission-approved shore-based shark fishing education course and shall be valid for 12 months from the date of issue.

I have no strong opinion about this one. I suppose issuing these permits will make it easier to know how many people are fishing for sharks from land, and make it easier for FWC to send angler education materials to those people. It’s important to note that having such a permit means that you’re allowed to engage in land-based shark fishing in the first place, not that you’re allowed to ignore all the other rules that are in place for land-based fishing, which is something that I hope these permits make absolutely clear.

The biggest things these rules leave out

  • These rules do not explicitly limit fight times for physiologically sensitive hammerhead sharks, which die after long fight times.
  • FWC had the chance hear to close a loophole and make it illegal for species that are illegal to catch in Florida waters to be landed in Florida ports (when caught in adjacent waters), and chose not to take it. 

What’s next

If the FWC commissioners approve these draft rules, there will be a final public hearing in February 2019 before they’re enacted. 

2 comments

  1. MakoMike · December 11

    You said I wish there was more of a focus on gear that reduced fight times, the gear we used to catch large adult hammerheads during my Ph.D. research meant that a shark could be landed in 5-10 minutes, the gear that many anglers use takes hours, and hammerheads often die after forty minutes or so on the line.” all well and good, but how would you mandate that fisherman know what species is on the end of their line?

    • David Shiffman · December 13

      Anglers say all the time that they love catching hammerheads because “they fight like nothing else out there.” If they fight like nothing else out there, you can tell what it is by how it fights.

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