Sharks are some of the most amazing creatures on Earth. These fierce and beautiful predators play critical and diverse roles in ocean food webs, ensuring that marine ecosystems stay healthy and balanced.
Unfortunately, one-quarter of sharks and their relatives are threatened with extinction, largely due to human activities. This includes shark finning, overfishing, and accidently catching sharks while targeting other species (known as bycatch).
Currently, there are 21 species of sharks in the Atlantic Ocean that are considered especially vulnerable and that are prohibited for recreational fishermen to keep, including the whale shark, great white and big eye thresher sharks. These species have been placed on the “prohibited” list in order to keep their populations healthy.
The dusky shark is one such “prohibited” species whose populations have declined by at least 65 percent in the past two decades as a result of overfishing and being accidently caught in fisheries targeting other species. Dusky sharks grow slowly and have low reproductive rates, making them highly vulnerable to overfishing, and so have been prohibited from being targeted by recreational and commercial fishermen since 2000.
This is why we were deeply saddened to learn about the catch of several prohibited species of sharks, including sandbars and possibly a dusky shark, at a recreational shark fishing tournament last month in Edisto Beach, South Carolina. If the fishermen were unsure about the status of these sharks, they should have made sure they were released back into the ocean.
As of June 12, there are 70 recreational tournaments in the United States that are registered with the federal government to catch sharks. Some are catch-and-release, while others are trophy tournaments where fishermen kill and keep the sharks. The federal government’s registration requirements for these tournaments are the first step toward ensuring that state and federal regulations, including size limits, limits on the number of animals they’re permitted to keep, gear restrictions and possession restrictions, are followed.
However, sharks can be difficult to identify, especially down to the species level, so it is of the utmost importance that recreational fishermen and tournament operators educate themselves to ensure they are not catching and killing prohibited species. For example, the sandbar shark, dusky shark and silky shark – all prohibited species – look very similar, making it difficult to identify exactly what you may have caught. To complicate matters, these species also look like several species that are legal for recreational fishermen to kill and keep as trophies.
If someone decides to participate in recreational shark fishing, especially in a tournament, it is imperative that they know and abide by the rules, which can also vary between state and federal waters. Fishermen need to investigate permit requirements, minimum sizes, seasons, the number of sharks you are allowed to keep, hook type and so on.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has created a shark identification placard as well as a prohibited shark identification placard and a recreational compliance guide. We encourage any recreational shark fishermen to print these out and keep them on-hand while fishing. Other resources include a new video that demonstrates exactly how fishermen can tell prohibited species from those they can keep.
Although we do not believe it goes far enough in rebuilding dusky populations, education and outreach to both recreational and commercial fishermen is vital to helping protect species that are in trouble, such as the dusky shark. At a minimum, these tournaments need to require fishermen to view these resources before the tournament starts to make sure no more prohibited sharks like the dusky or sandbar sharks end up becoming the victim of ignorance. In addition, NOAA needs to expand the training and certification of recreational fishermen to ensure they do not catch prohibited species. Training should also be supported with enhanced enforcement of recreational fishing regulations at these tournaments, where a winning catch can produce a prize in excess of $100,000.
NOAA needs to do a much better job at protecting prohibited species of sharks, including dusky sharks. Strict and steep penalties should be imposed on fishermen that retain prohibited shark species. In addition, hard limits on bycatch should be placed on all fisheries that incidentally catch prohibited shark species.
In the meantime, with all that is on the line, it’s most important to remember: if you don’t know, let it go.