On January 1st, 2012, new Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations came into effect, making it illegal for fishermen to land great, smooth, or scalloped hammerhead sharks in Florida waters. The legal term “land” is clearly defined in the Florida Code:
“Land,” when used in connection with the harvest of marine organisms, means the physical act of bringing the harvested organism ashore”
“Harvest” means the catching or taking of a marine organism by any means whatsoever, followed by a reduction of such organism to possession. Marine organisms that are caught but immediately returned to the water free, alive, and unharmed are not harvested”
Florida code section 68B-44 (emphasis mine)
In other words, if a fish is brought out of the water, it is “landed”. If anglers stop the act of releasing a fish to measure it or take a photo, it is not “immediately released.” If a fish isn’t “immediately returned alive and unharmed” (and if the extremely physiologically stressful act of bringing a hammerhead out of the water results in it dying after release, it was not released “unharmed,”) it is harvested. If you drag the shark out of the water and leave it there until it stops moving long enough that you feel safe to approach it, that is not an “immediately released” animal, and it isn’t an animal that is “released unharmed.” Landing and/or harvesting hammerhead sharks is illegal. This is clear under the law, and has been confirmed by numerous consultations with an FWC Law Enforcement official.
Scientists have observed rapid and severe population declines among great and smooth hammerheads, both of which are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red list and both of which have been proposed for United States Endangered Species Act protections. Additionally, recent research by our lab (paper here, explanatory video here) has shown that these animals have among the most severe physiological stress reactions to fisheries capture. They frequently die (sometimes after swimming away) as a result of capture stress, making them poor candidates for catch-and-release fishing. So to sum up, it’s illegal to land hammerhead sharks in Florida, these animals are Endangered, and capture stress can often result in killing them. So why has there been so much media coverage of anglers bringing hammerheads ashore in Florida, and why has none of it mentioned that this activity is illegal or harmful to an Endangered and protected species?
In February, a large hammerhead shark won a local shark fishing tournament. He brought the shark out of the water and stopped the release process to measure the shark and pose for a photo. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife saltwater fishing best practices guide, “it is never legal to hold on to or tow a fish that is not allowed to be harvested to a place to weigh or measure it.” Media coverage did not mention this.
In March, local University students caught a 700 pound hammerhead shark, brought it ashore, and posed for pictures and measurements.” These students clearly broke the law, and the best available scientific data suggests that a fight time this long results in killing an Endangered and protected species. Media coverage did not mention that the sharks are Endangered, that is is illegal to bring them ashore, or that the animal likely died from capture stress.
This week, another angler caught a hammerhead and brought it ashore, again stopping to measure and pose for photos. The media coverage referenced that it was a “thrill” to catch such a big fish, but not that it was illegal and almost certainly killed an Endangered and protected species.
The 13 news articles that make up the first page of Google News search results for “Florida Hammerhead” are a mix of local, national, and even international news outlets. They include words like “monster,” “adrenaline,” “cool”, “achievement,” “ultimate catch,” massive,” “giant,” “exciting,” “extreme,” “frightening,” “harrowing,” and “epic battle.” Not one article mentioned that great and scalloped hammerheads are IUCN Red List Endangered. Not one article mentioned that these animals are protected in Florida waters, or that landing these sharks is illegal in Florida. Not one article mentioned that the stress resulting from such an extended fight time has been shown to result in post-release mortality in this species. Several articles mentioned that the anglers release the sharks or use circle hooks, which is a step in the right direction, but not terribly helpful if the other fishing practices kill the shark anyway.
Legal protections for hammerhead sharks are a critical part of their conservation, but they are useless if they aren’t enforced. Instead of covering these stories in the context of “here’s a harmful and illegal activity that is likely killing Endangered and protected species,” many journalists are covering them as “here’s an exciting thing someone did.” Many of the stories end with the angler announcing plans to catch an even bigger shark next, which could easily result in copycat behavior as readers try to duplicate the exciting activity they read about. It is completely unacceptable that people are bragging about their illegal activities on the news without a single mention that they are illegal or harmful. This kind of media coverage glorifies what it should condemn.
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