FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — After a difficult nighttime battle from a Broward County beach, Viktor Hluben hauled a 14-foot great hammerhead shark into the surf.
His friends looped a line around the shark’s tail and dragged it ashore. As the shark lay motionless, its snout in the water, five of them posed for photos and video. Moving quickly, they cut the fishing line and hauled the shark into waist-deep water, its mouth streaked with blood.
The shark swam off, and over the next few weeks a YouTube video of the event notched more than 1 million hits, with Hluben and his friends receiving international newspaper and broadcast coverage.
Such videos have become increasingly popular, as land-based anglers in South Florida catch great hammerheads, tiger sharks and other formidable predators. But questions have arisen over whether these activities are legal and whether they leave the shark with much chance of survival.
David Shiffman, a shark conservationist and Ph.D. student at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, sharply criticized the media for glorifying such catches with words like “epic battle” and “ultimate catch” while failing to note that great hammerheads are endangered globally and that hauling them ashore is illegal in Florida.
“Florida law clearly says that if it’s a prohibited species, you are not allowed to delay the release of the animal to measure it or to take photographs,” said Shiffman, who blogged about it on the website Southern Fried Science. “It unequivocally does not require bringing a shark up on the beach in order to release it.”
Capt. Rama Shuster, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Law Enforcement, acknowledged it is not legal to land a species for which only catch-and-release fishing is allowed. He said state wildlife officers are cautious about second-guessing the actions of anglers at the moment of releasing a shark, however, since human safety is involved. But he said, “There’s never a time when it’s OK to drag it up on the beach and pose for pictures.”
The agency wrote only five citations for possession of protected shark species last year, one for a boat, the others on land, with three of those from a single enforcement stop, spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said.
“Our law enforcement staff is aware of these videos,” she said in an email. “As you know, when it comes to videos where our officers weren’t present, we don’t always know all of the facts.”
Hluben, a biochemistry student at Florida Atlantic University, said his group did its best to release the shark quickly and safely.
“When you’re a fisherman, you have no idea what you’re going to catch,” he said. “If you do happen to catch something that big, you don’t want to go into chest-deep water to unhook it. It’s a matter of human life versus a shark’s life. If you really want to do something for hammerheads, go after commercial shark fishing. Who’s going to go after some kid posting on YouTube when you can go after the people killing hundreds at a time?”
Another fisherman, Ryan Bolash, described by the British tabloid The Daily Mail as “the man who pulled a massive 13-foot hammerhead shark ashore with his bare hands” from Anglins Pier in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, said he has caught and released many sharks and knows how to keep them alive.
“What would the scientists like us to do, cut the line when we see it and let 15 or 20 feet of heavy line attached to the shark” remain, which could end up “killing them in the long run?” he asked in an email. “I agree that if the sharks are kept out of the water too long they will die. That is why it’s important to be very quick. The hammerhead was clearly released very quickly and clearly had a lot of energy even after the fight and cutting of the wire.”
Shuster, of the wildlife agency, said he watched the video of Bolash’s catch, in which the shark ended up briefly on the wet beach. He said the catch was legal and “it was very clear that they were absolutely intent on releasing the fish as soon as possible.”
Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, said many sharks die from the stress of catch-and-release fishing, especially after a long fight. Hammerheads are particularly vulnerable.
“All of it’s OK until they decide to drag the animal up on the beach,” he said. “At that point, that animal is holding its breath. This is like basically holding you under the water and doing things with you while you hold your breath. Everyone wants to shoot a video that they can put on YouTube. They want to get the animal out of the water, they want to all pose with it and then they’ll push it back in. Well, it may not be quick enough for some of these species like the hammerhead.”
Shiffman, the UM scientist, said he was astounded at the wildlife agency’s apparent failure to investigate or charge anyone, given the fact there’s video evidence all over the Internet.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “It’s seems like this is a very clear law and there’s an unbelievable amount of evidence that it’s being broken all the time. Just issuing a warning, saying other people shouldn’t do this, would go such a long way.”