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If you must drag a shark onto beach, do it right

10:56 AM, Aug 19, 2013   |    comments
Tim Nagy, of Naples, and a tiger shark he caught at Wiggins Pass; Nagy released the shark in good shape. / Special to The News-Press
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(News-Press) -- Every week is Shark Week on the Internet.

You don't have to look hard to find a photograph or video of a recreational fisherman dragging a hooked shark onto a beach by the tail or posing beside a shark he's pulled ashore.

For example:

» In July, a video of former Sanibel resident Elliot Sudal wrestling a 7-foot sandbar shark onto a Connecticut beach went viral - Sudal released the shark and told The News-Press he treats fish he catches with respect.

» On Aug. 1, naplesnews.com ran a photo of Naples resident Tim Nagy squatting next to a tiger shark he hauled onto the beach three years ago at Wiggins Pass in Collier County - Nagy said he released the fish in good shape.

» On Aug. 11, a video appeared of an unidentified fisherman dragging a 5-foot scalloped hammerhead shark to shore at Panama City Beach as spectators shout, "Shark Week," and "Don't let it swim away."

As exciting as shark-on-the-beach images are, the act of hauling a shark onto the sand is bad for the fish and potentially illegal.

"Obviously, dragging a shark up on the beach is the worst thing you can do for it," said Yannis Papastamatiou, a researcher the Florida Museum of Natural History's Ichthyology Department. "The best thing to do is release the shark in the water."

Neil Hammerschlag, a University of Miami research assistant professor who captures, tags and releases sharks in the Keys, Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico off Lee County, has no problem with catch-and-release shark fishing.

"It's a great way to enjoy sharks without killing them," he said. "That being said, recreational shark fishing needs to be responsible. Dragging a shark up on a beach by the tail is definitely not a good thing.

"People say, 'Well, I released it, and it swam away,' but that doesn't mean the shark survived."

Dragging a shark ashore by the tail can harm it in several ways.

Most shark species breathe by ram ventilation, which means they must swim to pass oxygenated water over their gills.

"Sharks swim only one way: forward," Hammerschlag said. "When they're pulled backward, they can't breathe."

Gravity might hurt sharks that are dragged onto a beach, Papastamatiou said.

"With small sharks, it's probably not an issue, but when you bring a big shark out of the water, there's a lot of weight on the internal organs that's not supposed to be there," he said. "That could certainly be an issue. Even if it's not fatal, it could cause damage to reproductive organs."

Paul Anderson, a research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., and Nick Whitney, a Mote Marine Laboratory staff scientist, are studying effects of catch-and-release practices on blacktip sharks off Boca Grande Pass.

Whenever any shark is caught and handled, it thrashes around, which is strenuous, and the fish doesn't breathe normally; the strenuous activity and the lack of proper respiration keep the shark from getting enough oxygen to feed its muscles.

As a result carbon dioxide builds up in its blood.

Too much carbon dioxide in the blood can lead to acidosis, which causes the blood to become acidic, which can be fatal..

"In the beach scenario with sharks, there's going to be a lot of thrashing going on," Anderson said. "The more the shark thrashes, the more strenuous the activity, and the more potential for suffering acidosis."

Preliminary results from the Boca Grande Pass study indicate when hooked blacktip sharks are brought to the boat and released relatively quickly, they don't return to normal activity for up to seven hours.

Increased stress from being dragged onto a beach could increase the time necessary for a shark to return to normal.

"If a shark's behavior is altered, it could become prone to predation by bigger sharks," Anderson said. "They're not in tip-top condition; they're more lethargic, so they're easier to pick off."

The law

In Florida, it's illegal to harvest, possess, buy, sell, exchange or land 25 shark species, including species found in Southwest Florida such as tiger, sandbar, great hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead and lemon sharks.

Pulling a prohibited shark onto the beach could be illegal in some cases.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials encourage anglers to release prohibited species as quickly as possible with the understanding large sharks must sometimes be brought on shore so the hook can be safely removed or the leader safely cut, Katie Purcell, spokeswoman for the FWC Division of Law Enforcement, wrote in an email to The News-Press.

"It really depends upon the situation as to the legality of certain actions," she wrote. "If fishermen are doing their best to stay safe and return the fish as quickly as possible to the water, they are doing the right thing."

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