Of the instantly recognizable organisms in the animal kingdom, the hammerhead shark is probably among the top three.
That distinctive skull design, molded by 400 million years of evolution, gives the large coastal shark its perfectly suited name. But many a tarpon fishing guide in Florida can also instantly identify a hammerhead shark by its tall sickle-shaped dorsal fin, and the feeling of dread that follows knowing another angler's trophy catch may fall prey to it.
A large hammerhead appears menacing. It seems intent on causing harm. Those soul-piercing eyes on either end of its skull, connected to a specialized nervous system which allows it to see and hunt successfully, give it a face only a hammerhead mother could love. Its very sight strikes fear into the hearts of many whether they are beachgoers or boaters.
But the hammerhead's looks could not be more deceiving. It is one of the most gentle, docile and mislabeled animals on this planet. In fact, of all the human shark bites recorded in history, according to the International Shark Attack File, only 17 unprovoked bites have been attributed to the hammerhead, and none were fatal. Truth be told, what should fear a large hammerhead shark most are stingrays, blacktip sharks and tarpon (especially the ones swimming near Boca Grande Pass).
Recently, a hammerhead shark caused quite a ripple on the tabloid website TMZ. A fishing trip off Miami was enjoyed by Denver Broncos defensive end Von Miller and several friends. During the excursion, a hammerhead shark estimated at 9 feet in length was caught and released after a few photos were taken.
However, the photos of Miller hoisting the shark by its tail for his Instagram followers, and video of the encounter, suggest the shark was handled very roughly, and kept from the water for a period of time likely harmful to the shark. Even the portion of the video showing the "release" suggests the shark "swam" off much the way the Titanic "sailed" to the bottom of the sea.
Ultimately, complaints were filed with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Spokesman Rob Klepper confirmed Thursday the matter is still under investigation to determine if a violation of state fishing regulations took place. Stephanie Bell, senior director of cruelty investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said Friday she feels the incident "depicts the possibility of cruelty and illegal activity," and that Florida law states hammerhead sharks are not to be "landed" or taken out of the water.
"They have been found to be especially sensitive and do not survive catch and release fishing activity very well," Bell added.
Three types of hammerhead sharks, including the species in the photos, are prohibited from harvest in Florida state waters. So are 23 other species of sharks. However, to my eye, which is only a guess, the photo shows the boat may be more than three miles off Miami Beach, meaning it was in federal waters. Hammerhead sharks receive no protection, except for from finning, in U.S. federal waters extending 200 miles from land. Klepper would not reveal to me the name of the charter boat captain, vessel or marina hired by Miller's party, or I would have included it here. At the very least, the captain could have handled the shark in a way which would have ensured its healthy release.
The title of the YouTube video shot last weekend was a real grabber: "They should have CLOSED the beaches!" It made me want to watch it.
Viktor Hluben, of the YouTube Channel Land Shark Fishing, posted the video Thursday featuring a crazy beach fishing session. His fellow sharkers caught and released an unheard of 11 hammerhead sharks and two tiger sharks in 12 hours of fishing time. They were fishing what appeared to be a public beach access on Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie County.
By anyone's surf fishing for sharks standards, the video indicates an epic session. But to a growing wave of beachgoers and conservationists, the video will generate frustration.
On a related note, beachgoers at the public beach at Jensen Beach called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Tuesday to report a large hammerhead shark washed up dead on the shore. The FWC contacted researchers at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. Harbor Branch sent a team to collect the shark to bring it back to its lab to perform a necropsy — think more like biology class and less like Crime Scene Investigation.
"We had to decide what to do about it," said Matt Ajemian, one of the lead researchers of sharks and rays at Harbor Branch. "It was huge and we could not have collected it without the help of the lifeguards there or In-Water Research Group."
Ajemian explained that it is rare for research organizations to have access to large sharks like hammerheads, tigers and whites, because of their protected status. His team took measurements, weights and samples for a variety of research organizations on the 12-foot long, 560-pound male shark.
Could the hammerhead have been one caught during the fishing session captured by the YouTuber? Possibly. Ajemian said there is no way to know for certain. Also, the research community has a good working relationship with land-based shark fishers so there is no blame assigned.
But April 25-26, during its regular meeting in Fort Lauderdale, FWC commissioners will be discussing shark-related issues along with a packed agenda which includes whether to allow limited harvest of goliath groupers, changes in tripletail and sheepshead bag limits and sizes and Gulf of Mexico red snapper regulations. Included among the shark-related topics will be how the FWC can urge federal fishery managers to adopt its rules in federal waters, what to do about shore-based shark fishing and what the current status of shark dive charter operations which carry divers beyond the state water limit to feed sharks as an attraction.
Without a doubt, the Von Miller hammerhead catch, the now infamous shark dragging incident which resulted in charges for those in the video, and several incidents involving large dead sharks washed ashore will drive the discussion and the public comment.
If preparing to go shark fishing, be sure to fish Shark Smart with the FWC page dedicated to tips, techniques and more. For complete fishing regulations, including sharks, go to http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/.
When: April 25-26
Where: Marriott Fort Lauderdale North, 6650 North Andrews Avenue, Fort Lauderdale
Time: Meetings begin at 8:30 a.m. each day
Main agenda items: Final public hearing on changes to fishing regulations for tripletail and sheepshead; Goliath grouper hearing results report; Injurious wildlife species entering Florida report; Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades system overview; Sharks staff report and Gulf red snapper finalization of state rules.
Full agenda and information to submit public comment if not in attendance: http://myfwc.com/about/commission/commission-meetings/2018/april/25/agenda/
Follow Ed Killer on Twitter @tcpalmekiller