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This Pinellas town banned shark fishing on its beaches. What’s next?

The small beach community passed the ban after a pregnant 10-foot tiger shark washed up on their shores. Now, a nearby town is moving forward with a similar ban.
 
In June, a dead tiger shark washed up on Indian Shores, prompting town leaders to pass a ban on shark fishing from land.
In June, a dead tiger shark washed up on Indian Shores, prompting town leaders to pass a ban on shark fishing from land. [ Courtesy of Indian Shores Police ]
Published Nov. 27, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

The body of the bloated, pregnant tiger shark that Indian Shores Police Maj. Glen Smith saw on the beach wasn’t the first to wash ashore in his coastal community. But he said he hopes it will be the last.

On June 10, the female tiger shark — a protected species in Florida — was found dead on the shoreline near Barefoot Beach Resort, prompting Indian Shores to ban shark fishing across its 2½ miles of beach access.

Smith said he could see other governmental bodies in Pinellas County enacting ordinances of their own if shark anglers retreat from Indian Shores and authorities find dead sharks in their communities. Fish kill data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows dead shark sightings are more common in the county’s more populated cities. But it’s Pinellas’ smaller beach towns that are leading the charge for complete bans on land-based shark fishing.

“I would think if you found a bunch of dead sharks, St. Pete Beach — any of those municipalities, anywhere on the coastline, or frankly, anywhere in the country — would start to ask questions,” he said. “The same questions I asked.”

A necropsy on the 10-foot shark Smith saw found that she was pregnant with 40 pups. Smith said she was likely fished from the beach and left to die in the sand.

“That didn’t sit real well with me,” he said.

Smith went to Indian Shores Police Chief Richard Swann and asked him for permission to move forward with a shark fishing ban. Smith said he looked to other examples in Florida when crafting the policy and modeled Indian Shores’ rule after a similar ordinance in Delray Beach.

On Sept. 13, the Town Council unanimously passed a measure banning shark fishing across their beaches, which included a $500 fine for those caught breaking the law.

Smith said he has seen comments online protesting the local ordinance. In a post to the private Facebook group Tampa Bay Land Based Shark Fishing, one member threatened legal action against the town.

“Nothing better than Indian Shores banning shark fishing with a fine of up to $500. Thank you to the idiots who are out scamming,” a post by another member read.

Sharks are low-light hunters, so the best time to catch them is often around dusk. Indian Shores police have increased nighttime patrols near the beach accesses to enforce the new rule.

Smith said his 14 officers are spread between Indian Shores and Redington Shores, which does not have a police force of its own. Shortly after the ban passed in his town, Smith said, he approached Redington Shores officials about implementing a shark fishing ban there, too. It’s common for the neighboring town to pass ordinances already adopted by Indian Shores, he said.

“It makes it easier for us that it’s consistent,” Smith said.

Redington Shores passed a first reading of their shark fishing ban at a town meeting Nov. 8. If the ordinance passes again on Dec. 13, the ban will go into effect immediately.

Joe Licata, a Redington Shores Town Council member, said the ordinance not only preserves the species but also addresses public safety concerns.

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Licata suspects that chumming from shore — made illegal on Florida beaches in 2020 — played a part in the pregnant tiger shark’s death. He said he worries that could attract the animals to beaches and endanger residents and tourists.

“If you’ve got a bunch of sharks washing up dead predominantly in one or two places, consistently, that’s because they’re getting programmed to know, ‘Hey, there’s some food here,’” Licata said.

Since July 2020, when the chumming rule and other shark fishing regulations passed, just one shark has washed up dead in Redington Shores, according to the fish kill data.

“All it takes is that one,” Licata said.

Licata said he hopes that other Pinellas municipalities will move to adopt similar bans.

“Just given the amount of people who come out and swim, I can’t believe something like this hasn’t already been around,” he said.

Statewide rules cracked down on shark fishing misconduct

David Shiffman, a marine biologist at Arizona State University, said it takes 13 years for a tiger shark to reach reproductive age, and killing mature animals for “something so pointless is distressing.”

Land-based fishing is particularly hard on sharks, Shiffman said.

“It makes it so catch-and-release is more like catch-and-dump-a-body,” he said.

Wooden docks, concrete sea walls and sandy beaches are abrasive surfaces that can cause lasting damage to sharks when they are pulled from the ocean and dragged ashore. Shiffman said this can cause cuts that may become infected or harm the animals’ gills.

In 2019, Shiffman worked with the wildlife commission, environmental advocates and angling groups to bring about those more stringent rules for land-based shark fishing. In addition to the chumming ban, the policy restricts the type of hook used and requires that sharks’ gills be partially submerged at all times.

Since the law took effect in 2020, Shiffman said, he’s seen fewer “egregious, in-your-face violations.”

“Many of these anglers were being very public about not following the rules, and very openly mocking of scientists and conservationists and the FWC in social media posts,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot less of that.”

In Pinellas, most communities say shark deaths aren’t an issue on their beaches

There have been 96 reports of dead sharks found in Pinellas since the law changed, according to the wildlife commission.

Indian Shores has seen 10 dead sharks wash up on its beaches in the last three years, the data shows. Clearwater Beach and Indian Rocks Beach lead the county in dead shark sightings, having received 18 reports each since 2020.

However, because the agency’s data relies on community reports, it is not a complete list of dead sharks found across the state, wildlife commission spokesperson Kelly Richmond said.

“A dead shark on a beach does often warrant a call, because people are interested in informing researchers for science, or they simply want the dead shark away from the area they are recreating at,” Richmond wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “Fish kill reports only come from locations where people are, so if no one is around to see it, it doesn’t get reported.”

She said Clearwater Marine Aquarium staff who are out looking for turtle nests every day and Clearwater Beach’s generally heavier foot traffic may skew numbers and explain why that city’s dead shark count is higher than in neighboring municipalities.

Still, some officials across the county say shark deaths have been no cause for concern on their municipal beaches.

“We haven’t had any issues along those lines,” said Rob Shaw, a Clearwater Police Department spokesperson.

Since 2020, Treasure Island has had seven dead shark reports, according to the wildlife commission. Jason Beisel, a city spokesperson, said local officials he asked about dead shark sightings aren’t concerned, either.

Shiffman said he didn’t push for the state to ban shark fishing outright when the law changed. He thought that would be “stronger than necessary.”

But in areas where sharks continue to wash up on beaches, he said, it seems like the obvious next step.

“If someone is saying, ‘I’m not going to follow the speed limit,’ that’s not an argument against having the speed limit. That’s an argument against that person being allowed to drive,” he said.

Shiffman said unsustainable commercial overfishing is to blame for dwindling shark populations. However, because some shark species are so few in number, recreational fishing now is becoming a significant conservation challenge.

“There’s a lot of ways to do this hobby respectfully and in a way that does not cause harm,” Shiffman said. “What you see with these shark anglers — it’s usually not that.”

Shiffman urged shark anglers to follow best practices, which include complying with state and local laws, keeping the “fight time” down when reeling in a catch and cutting the line when the shark is under too much stress.

“It is not good for a shark to trail 50 yards of line behind it for lots of reasons,” he said. “But it’s a lot better than dragging it up on the beach, wrestling it and then ripping the hook out of its mouth.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Clearwater Police Department spokesperson.