When a pair of fishermen landed a massive hammerhead shark on a Fort Lauderdale-area beach last month, dragging it ashore by its tail as a cheering crowd aimed cellphones at the exhausted fish, the spectacle reignited a debate over the ethics of a sport that is finding new and bigger audiences with extreme angling videos on YouTube.
The shark, protected by state and federal laws due to sharply declining numbers, measured more than 13 feet. Once hooked, regulations say it should have been quickly released.
But when it comes to a fish so tough it will fight to the death, the definition of quick can be tricky.
Ryan Bolash, the 21-year-old creator of the Infinity Fishing Team channel on YouTube and the angler who grabbed the fish’s tail as his girlfriend recorded the action, says he acted as quickly as possible to cut the long and potentially harmful wire leader dangling from the hook in the shark’s mouth.
“The best thing to do is get them out of the water and back in, in under two minutes,” he said. “It takes a lot of experience to do that.”
However, University of Miami assistant professor Neil Hammerschlag says the stress caused by that kind of fight could be killing hammerheads.
“Over 45 minutes is really stressing the shark out. And that’s just moderate fishing,” he said. “People, in their defense, say the shark swam away. But that doesn’t mean anything because we found the shark can die later, after the release.”
State officials would not comment on the legality of last month’s hammerhead catch off Anglin’s Fishing Pier in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. But Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Amanda Nalley said state wildlife officers generally try to take an educational approach when they learn of similar incidents.
“These are apex predators. They are important to the system. We wouldn’t have protected them if we didn’t think they were important, and we definitely want people to do the best they can to release them in an expeditious manner,” she said.
In the world of sport fishing, sharks fall in the category of big game. Their allure is near mythical, from Jaws to Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual celebration of shark hysteria started nearly three decades ago. Last year’s premiere drew more than 4.8 million viewers.
Hammerheads, which first appeared 20 million years ago, inspire particular fascination. Their winglike heads, called cephalofoils and capped by wide, bulging eyes, make them one of the sea’s most efficient hunters. Anglers know them as one of its toughest fighters.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of hammerheads dropped dramatically. Estimates for the species’ decline in the Northwest and West Central Atlantic ranged from 50 percent over the last 10 years for the great hammerhead to 98 percent between 1973 and 2003 for the scalloped hammerhead, prompting state and federal officials to begin restricting fishing.
Scientists believe one of the reasons for the decline is that hammerheads were getting inadvertently caught by longline commercial fishermen, who drag miles of baited lines or set them on the sea floor, where some hammerheads prowl for food. Hammerheads are also targeted for their fins, which have high-quality needles prized by consumers of shark fins. At the Hong Kong fin trade market, the world’s largest, between one million and three million hammerhead fins are traded every year, according to a 2013 status report on the scalloped hammerhead done by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of its evaluation for the endangered species list. The fins can fetch $50 to $100 per pound, another study found.
More than two years ago, Florida wildlife officers added the scalloped, great and smooth hammerheads to their list of protected species. The move means that while anglers can hook the fish, they can’t keep them and must release them. And that’s where matters get tricky.
David Shiffman, a doctoral student at UM studying shark ecology who blogs about marine science and conservation, said he has repeatedly emailed state wildlife officers when he sees videos of hammerhead catches that he believes violate the law.
“Every time one of these pops up, we send them in and say, ‘Are you going to do anything?’ and they don’t,” he said. “What’s really striking is many of the fishermen say, ‘Of course we released it. We don’t want it to die.’ So your heart’s in the right place, but your actions don’t match it.”
In January, a team of UM researchers that included Hammerschlag concluded a three-year study into the effects of catch and release on five shark species. During the study, they hooked 102 sharks, timing the length of fights and drawing blood from the sharks to measure the amount of lactate in their blood, the same chemical that can cause athletes to cramp. They found that hammerheads that had been hooked showed signs of stress, more so than other shark species, through high levels of lactate. Hammerheads also had diminished reflexes after they had been reeled in.
Perhaps more ominous were the results of tracking. After four weeks, only about half could be found.
“When you take all those things together, it shows hammerheads are definitely the most vulnerable to fishing and getting stressed out,” Hammerschlag said. “And if they get stressed out enough . . . they’re going to suffer mortality.”
The team said the study showed a clear need to reexamine rules.
But when it comes to penalties, the FWC tries to take a mainly educational approach, Nalley said.
“You can measure and photograph a prohibited species so long as it does not delay release,” she said. “In cases where somebody is maybe taking time to do those things, we are going to take an educational approach and reach out to those folks and let them know the best way to return that fish to water as soon as possible.”
Bolash, the YouTube angler, grew up with a rod in his hand, spending weekends fishing with his dad, who worked feeding sharks at the New York Aquarium on Coney Island before moving to Florida. When he wasn’t with his dad, Bolash and his buddy Michael O’Gorman scouted out canal banks, docks, piers and beaches for good fishing spots, hoping to become masters at finding fish from land.
In 2011, he and O’Gorman launched their Infinity Team Fishing channel. Views of their YouTube videos grew from just a few hundred to as many as 98,000. A year later, YouTube offered them a partnership, meaning they could collect money from ads.
Bolash, who works as a cashier at Anglin’s Fishing Pier, had hit on a growth market: extreme fishing videos.
“These are species that people want to catch,” said Josh Jorgensen, another Fort Lauderdale angler who created the three-day Blacktip Challenge tournament and produces a YouTube channel by the same name. He said Bolash is targeting a neglected niche in the sport: land anglers.
“Most land fishermen are not well off,” he said. “These are blue-collar guys. They want to feel that power and they want to be able to do it from the beach.”
On April 21, the day the hammerhead video was shot, Bolash was at his girlfriend’s when he got the call from friends at the pier who said he needed to hurry over. They’d hooked a massive hammerhead.
When he arrived, he said, his friend had already been fighting the fish for 45 minutes and needed Bolash to help him land it on the beach. So Bolash, who had already begun recording the fight with his cellphone because he’d left his cameras at home, handed his girlfriend the phone, along with another.
“I said, ‘Do your best because I’m going to be busy trying to help them get the shark back in the water safely,’ ” he said.
The video shows Bolash pulling the shark by its tail toward shore. As people cheer and a surfer tries to position his board next to the shark to show its size, the surf rolls the limp shark onto its back.
Bolash pulls back its head and yells for someone to get him wire cutters to snip the wire leader. He then struggles to pull the shark off the sand and back into the surf. One, then two and eventually six bystanders help him as the shark twists onto its back. The edited video shows Bolash twice moving the shark back and forth in the water to revive it before it swims off. He says the encounter lasted less than an hour.
But other anglers were appalled.
“You saw the video of the shark in the surf. Its gills were completely exposed and it had sand in its mouth,” said Dan Kipnis, who has helped judge fishing tournaments and founded the Miami Billfish Tournament as well as several others. “The fish did swim away, but I doubt seriously that that fish would live.”