Groundbreaking international protections approved for sharks as Florida fisherman push for higher bag limits

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Global leaders recently agreed to extend protections for more than two-thirds of the world’s shark population, with numbers rapidly dwindling because of the insatiable demand for shark fins.

Closer to home, Florida fishermen are complaining that there’s too many sharks, and NOAA is now reassessing it’s limits on the amount of sharks that can be legally caught and killed.

Local 10 was on the water off the coast of Palm Beach as a team of FIU marine scientist carefully reeled in an adult female 8 foot bull shark. The 300 pound shark was put into tonic immobility oblivious as the biologists collected important data from her that could prove vital to the conservation of her species and all sharks.

“We really need to know how many sharks are out here, because in general, shark populations are way down,” said FIU marine biologist Mike Heithaus. “And although we’re doing better than most places here in the U.S., we can still do better.”

An acoustic transmitter was inserted into the shark so they can now track her every move.

“So all we’re trying to do is understand which areas these animals actually use, and how that sort of area use changes throughout time,” said FIU marine biologist Yannis Papastamatiou. “So how does it change day and night? How does it change seasonally?”

The urgent research comes at a time when extinction due to overfishing threatens 37 percent of all sharks and 70 percent of species specifically traded for their fins.

On average, the world is killing 100 million sharks a year.

FIU shark researcher Diego Cardenosa Zoomed with Local 10 News from Hong Kong, where he continues his groundbreaking work developing protocols and tools to help law enforcement all over the world crack down on the illegal shark fin trade.

“The status of shark populations around the world is definitely something to worry about,” said Cardenosa. “We have visual identification guides, we have import DNA toolkits that can be used to identify species in fins very easily.”

Cardenosa’s work is even more pivotal now that CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, voted just last week to increase protections on 54 species of requiem sharks and hammerhead sharks that are targeted for their fins.

“So that’s like an open opening a door for more regulations and more protections for those specific species around the world,” he said.

Locally in South Florida, the conservation fight continues due to pressure from commercial and recreational anglers who claim Florida’s Atlantic coast has become way too sharky.

NOAA is now reassessing the number of sharks commercial fishermen are allowed to harvest, and is considering upping the retention limit from 45 large coastal sharks per vessel per trip to 55 sharks, excluding sandbar sharks, listed as vulnerable.

According to Lauren Gaches with NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs, “NOAA Fisheries is currently developing the final rule to address quotas and retention limits and anticipates that the final rule will be published in the federal register in the coming weeks.”

Recreational fishermen also want the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to up its bag limit, which is currently at one shark per person per day.

“We are starting to get to the point where there’s an imbalance,” said shark fishing tournament organizer Robert Fly Navarro.

They claim protections on sharks have caused a boom, which is now preventing them from being able to land their catch because the sharks steal it.

“You’re losing 50 percent of what we hooked to sharks,” said Navarro.

Scientists, however, are pushing back.

“I wouldn’t call that a shark boom,” said Papastamatiou. “Remember, these were populations that were historically over fished. So what you’re seeing is recovery, potentially, of the populations.”

Scientists do agree that there has been a recent uptick human interaction with sharks, but also point to more people and more boats in the water.

Since the pandemic, Florida now has a record more than one million registered boats.

“Just because sharks are taking more fish off hooks doesn’t mean they’re more sharks out here,” said Heithaus.

What it means is that they’ve gotten smart.

“They’re getting a fish that’s already struggling, they don’t have to do the hunting portion,” said FIU PhD Student Candace Fields. “And they can just take a bite and get a pretty much a free meal.”

The team of researchers are hoping this work can lead them to finding ways for sharks and anglers to coexist. After all, a healthy ocean needs a healthy shark population.

“We have large numbers of sharks,” said Papastamatiou. “Not many places can say that and that’s a sign of a good healthy ecosystem. So that’s something to be proud of, doesn’t mean that the job is done, but it’s a good sign.”


Federal Register: Atlantic Highly Migratory Species; 2023 Atlantic Shark Commercial Fishing Year

2023 Atlantic Shark Commercial Fishery: Quotas, Retention Limits, and Opening Date

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.