My comments on New York’s proposed new shark fishing regulations

Following a growing problem of mishandling of species of conservation concern, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation is proposing some new shark fishing regulations. Here is the text of the letter I sent them supporting some of those proposed regulations, and proposing additional regulations.

A dead sand tiger shark washed up on a New York beach with recreational fishing gear in its mouth. Photo Vincent Cavaleri, via the DEC website.

Dear Commissioner Seggos, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,

As a marine biologist with expertise in the conservation impacts of recreational fisheries on threatened shark species, I write in support of several proposed changes to New York State’s land-based shark fishing regulations. Additionally, while I am not a New York resident, I and my family have vacationed in your beautiful state every summer of my life. I learned to fish in New York from my grandfather, and those experiences contributed to my lifelong love of underwater life.  

I studied Florida’s recreational shark fishery and its conservation impacts as part of my Ph.D. at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. That work contributed to Florida changing their land-based fishing regulations.

Though industrial-scale commercial overfishing is the greatest threat to sharks overall, contributing to 1 in 3 known species of chondrichthyan fishes being assessed as threatened with extinction by the IUCN, a growing body of research shows that for some species of sharks that are already threatened, recreational fisheries can pose a significant conservation challenge. There are some species for which populations are so low that commercial fishing is already heavily restricted or banned, but recreational fishing is still permitted. Another reason for the conservation impact of recreational fisheries is that economic incentives for recreational fisheries are reversed- while a heavily declined commercial stock would result in a fishery ceasing operations because there is no longer enough biomass to pay the bills, recreational anglers pay for the experience of catching a fish, and rarer fish are considered more valuable. Additionally, as was the case in Florida, the New York State recreational shark fishery seems to consist mostly of threatened species that are illegal to possess or land, such as sand tiger sharks, dusky sharks, and sandbar sharks.

I am therefore grateful that the State of New York is recognizing these threats, and that the Department of Environmental Conservation is considering acting to alleviate them, and I appreciate the opportunity to write in support.

Some common land-based shark fishing practices pose notable extra conservation threats to large fishes like sharks. With boat-based recreational fishing, a shark that is caught by anglers is in the water until the moment it is brought aboard the vessel. While in the water, its organs have the buoyant support they need, and the shark can breathe. In contrast, with land-based angling, sharks are dragged through shallow water and up onto a beach, dock, or pier, significantly increasing both stress and injury- photos of sharks dragged onto land demonstrate significantly more injuries and wounds than sharks brought alongside vessels in deeper water. Sand in particular can cause microabrasions to gill tissue, resulting in permanent serious injury even if the sharks are released. This is especially problematic for physiologically vulnerable species like hammerhead sharks.

Therefore, I am strongly supportive of the proposed regulation changes that will prohibit the removal of prohibited species of sharks from the water. I would encourage these regulations to follow the model we recommended for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which notes that to be considered “left in the water,” sharks’ gills must be mostly or completely submerged at all times, as opposed to the less specific “in as much water as possible” language used in your draft regulations.

The proposed gear changes, including prohibiting large J-hooks and large metal leaders, will lead to reduced catch of some especially large individuals, and an increased chance of survival post-release for others. Restricting the deployment of baited hooks by drones and other means other than casting, as well as lure restrictions and chumming restrictions, will help avoiding the unintended capture of species that do not survive well in shallow water. Requiring non-stainless steel hooks that rust out can also contribute to reducing trailing fishing gear that can lead to released sharks getting entangled.

I therefore also support the proposed gear and deployment regulation changes. In addition to the proposed regulatory changes outlined in your proposed new regulations, I have several additional suggestions for you to consider adding, including:

Consider creating a land-based shark fishing specific permit to be required for anglers. This permit need not be expensive (Florida’s is free,) but requiring it allowed the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to provide additional training on the safe handling and release of shark species to anglers interested in responsibly participating in the fishery. It also allowed the agency to collect data on the scale of their land-based recreational shark fishery. Such a permit could also require anglers to report all of their catch to DEC.

Consider enshrining some already-established “best practices” that DEC currently recommends into law. For example, in Florida, regulations now explicitly state that it is illegal to delay the release of a protected species to pose for photographs or to measure or weigh it. Dragging or lifting a shark by the tail is unsafe for humans and can cause severe internal injuries for sharks, and should be explicitly prohibited rather than recommended against.

Consider specific regulations about fight times for certain species. Some species of sharks, especially hammerheads, are incredibly physiologically vulnerable to fight stress and will often die after a prolonged fight even if otherwise handled properly and released. While dragging line behind them can pose an entanglement risk to a shark, fighting it to exhaustion or near-death is, in some cases, likely to result in worse outcomes than cutting the line with a significant length of line still attached.

Consider prioritizing (and funding) research on this fishery and its impacts, and on the impacts of these new regulations. The best conservation policies are evidence-based, and gathering more data can help ensure the success of these and possible future regulations.

These proposed regulations are all reasonable and based on scientific evidence. They will help threatened species of sharks to recover by reducing their mortality from mishandling and needlessly rough and stressful fishing practices. And they will not restrict normal angling by rule-following mainstream anglers. I thank you for the opportunity to write in support of these conservation regulations. I am available to answer any questions that you or your staff have about these comments.

David Shiffman, Ph.D.
Marine Conservation Biologist