37 things I learned about shark ecology and conservation for my dissertation

The fam attending my dissertation defense

The fam attending my dissertation defense

After a little more than 5 years of hard work, I’ve officially completed my Ph.D.! You can read my dissertation (“An Integrative and Interdisciplinary Approach to Shark Conservation: Policy Solutions, Ecosystem Role, and Stakeholder Attitudes”) online here in its entirety.

In case there are some among you who don’t really want to read a 281 page dissertation but are curious about what I found, I’ve prepared this blog post to summarize my key conclusions. (Note: this does not include every conclusion. Some are aggregated together, and some more technical conclusions are omitted for this summary).

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Florida angler catches (and likely kills) Endangered great hammerhead shark


Image taken from the South Florida shark fishing club online forum. Photographer undisclosed. I have blocked out the angler's face to protect his identity

Update: The angler who originally caught the shark has responded. Please see below.

On February 5th, while standing on a beach in Miami,  a fisherman caught a 14 foot great hammerhead shark. According to his account, “we had it beached within an hour of hooking it. The fish weighed too much her girth was huge. Just the 2 of us wasn’t enough to get it out of the water….We snapped some pictures with our dying camera, measured it at 170 inches and spent the next hour walking back and forth with HER reviving her…it swam off slow and steady”

While this might appear to be a simple case of catch-and-release recreational fishing, it is not. My lab and I are  supporters of sustainable catch and release fishing.  However, it is important to note that since January 1, 2012, great hammerheads (an IUCN Red List Endangered species) have been a protected species in Florida state waters and have additional legal protections. The Florida code indicates that:

“(1) No person shall harvest, possess, land, purchase, sell, or exchange any or any part of these species:
…(k) Great hammerhead – Sphyrna mokarran.

…(3) “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”

…(5) “Land,” when used in connection with the harvest of marine organisms, means the physical act of bringing the harvested organism ashore”  Florida code section 68B-44  (Emphasis mine)

In this incident, the shark was brought ashore. We can infer from the statement “the fish weighed too much her girth was huge. Just the 2 of us wasn’t enough to get it out of the water” that the fisherman attempted to pull it all the way out of the water, but was unable to do so (an important legal distinction) . Instead, he ended up beaching it, bringing it so far out that it could not move or breathe. The angler did not immediately release the animal. According to the angler’s account, it was measured and photographed prior to the attempt to resuscitate it. The shark was not released alive and unharmed. By the angler’s own admission, it took over an hour of resuscitation before the animal was able to even swim away slowly.

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State of the Field: Is catch-and-release fishing harmful to sharks?

In the wake of the new Marianas Islands shark conservation law, a debate has been raging on the shark  listservs. The law wouldn’t have been possible without support from several local recreational fishermen- people who often take tourists catch-and-release fishing for sharks.

“When I heard of your effort in Hawaii to ban the sale,trade and possession of shark fins I knew if the CNMI was to follow someone with inside connections to the fishing world there had to espouse it and grow it.  They do not like being told what to do from outsiders.  I was not an outsider, and I fished alongside two of the very top level fishermen who happened to be upper level politicians whom I respected.  Rep. Diego Benevente was one of them.  I spoke with him and asked him to introduce a bill which replicated Hawaii’s law, and he did so. I kept constant contact with him and his staff in the effort to see this bill become law.”- Captain William McCue

Image from FishingDestin.info

Many shark conservationists support catch-and-release fishing, claiming that it allows fishermen the thrill of catching a large animal without killing it. Captain McCue reports that in the last 20 years:

“I’ve caught over 300 sharks in the that time a killed four- and if you include spiny dogfish it’s caught well over 2000 sharks and still killed only four- two of which were promptly eaten.”

However, some (such as “My Sunset Rendezvous” author Ila France Porcher) claim that even when a shark is released, the stress from being caught often still causes long-term damage or even death.

“As a shark ethologist, I have personally witnessed sharks who were hooked and fought, and who broke the line, emerge from the ordeal with a jaw so damaged that they lost weight and died over the following weeks or months. A high fraction of sharks caught suffered this fate, and they suffered greatly as a result of this enjoyable passtime pursued by sports fishermen. It would be great news to hear that you switched from a blood sport to a sport that celebrates the life that still remains in our seas, such as diving and photography.” – Ila France Porcher

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