ST. PETERSBURG — The Pier Aquarium's shark exhibits were open to visitors Wednesday morning, but the real show was right outside.
Two young men were showing off a 9-foot female bull shark they caught hours before at the Pier. The carcass was in the back of a small pickup truck, blood dripping onto the pavement. A small crowd snapped digital photos.
"It was either him or us," 19-year-old Joshua Lipert of St. Petersburg told an onlooker. "Look who lost."
His fishing buddy agreed. "It was a dogfight," said Robert Korkoske, 16, who helped reel in the shark.
Using 100-pound Dacron fishing line and stingrays for bait, they fought the animal for two hours from the northeastern end of the Pier before landing it about 6:15 a.m., they said.
They dragged it to a small beach on the western end.
A trophy kill, they called it.
"We like to cut the jaws out, hang them on the wall as a souvenir," said Korkoske, who said the pair have caught several sharks before.
Though the shark had not been put on ice and was outdoors for hours after the kill, Lipert said he would offer the meat to relatives. Taking it to a taxidermist was too expensive, he said.
Butch Ringelspaugh, curator of exhibits for the Pier Aquarium, estimated the shark weighed 350 to 500 pounds.
He wasn't surprised to find a shark that size swimming around the Pier. "This is bull shark territory out here."
Still, he noted the irony that the museum educates the public about the importance of protecting sharks. While bull sharks are not endangered, state law limits the catch to one a day. They are among the most dangerous sharks in the world, Ringelspaugh said.
The curator would have preferred it if Lipert had released the shark, which he estimated was 15 to 25 years old. At that age, a healthy female could be pregnant, Ringelspaugh said.
"The thing is, it takes a long time for them to reach sexual maturity, and by the time they do, very few of their young will make it to adulthood," he said. "Sharks as a whole are definitely down in numbers. Over 100 million sharks a year are killed by humans."
A controversy recently erupted over a 1,000-pound pregnant hammerhead shark killed in Port Charlotte by a fisherman who wanted to prove he'd broken the world record.
Brent Winner, an associate research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, dropped by the Pier on Wednesday and took a blood sample of the shark to study for mercury. He turned down an offer to take the shark, but later offered his opinion on killing it: "It's his right to kill that fish. But you would hope that someone doesn't kill for trophy alone."
Based on weight, age and the plumpness of its belly, Winner believed the shark was pregnant with six or eight pups.
Onlookers were drawn to the spectacle in the parking lot.
Elijah Colbert, 9, of St. Petersburg was there to visit the aquarium. His mom, Dana Colbert, prodded him to get closer to the shark so she could snap a picture.
"Turn around, bend down," she prodded him.
He did as he was told, but never touched the shark.