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Killing tiger and hammerhead sharks may become a crime in Florida

Florida wildlife managers, in a move that would be a first nationally, are poised to outlaw killing tiger sharks and three kinds of hammerheads that prowl state waters — but in increasingly fewer numbers.

The idea of protecting “man-eating’’ species might perplex some people scarred by one too many Jaws movie marathons but it’s broadly supported by marine scientists, environmental groups and even the International Game Fish Association, keeper of all sport fishing records.

Maybe more important, Bucky Dennis, shark hunter extraordinaire, is all for it.

That’s one telling measure of how much angler attitudes have changed about the dwindling populations of important, misunderstood predators that have long been butchered for their fins and jaws and displayed on docks as “monster-fishing’’ trophies.

Dennis, a fishing guide from Port Charlotte, caught some wicked backlash from the far reaches of cyberspace after he bagged a world-record hammerhead off Boca Grande on Florida’s southwest coast in May 2009 — a 1,060-pounder that was likely at least a half century old and probably a pregnant female. Countless e-mailers and bloggers called him heartless, ignorant and other unpleasant, unprintable pejoratives.

Two years later, he won’t say he regrets killing the shark, which got him into the IGFA record books for 80-pound test line and was intended to help promote his fishing guide business. But he fully supports a catch-and-release-only rule that would put an end to killing big hammerheads and tigers simply for records — at least the ones caught in Florida’s coastal waters.

“There are only so many sharks. I’m not out there to kill them and hang them up all the time,’’ he said. “If I do that, I’m hurting the industry. I want my customers to catch them. I want my kids to catch them.’’

The new rule, up for final approval on Wednesday during a meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Key Largo, would add four new species — tiger sharks as well as scalloped, smooth and great hammerheads — to 23 sharks already off-limits for harvest in state waters, which extend three miles off the Atlantic coast and nine miles off the Gulf coast.

Catch-and-release fishing would still be allowed and anglers also could transport sharks landed in federal waters, where all four species remain legal for most anglers to kill. The National Fisheries Service this year did prohibit commercial and sport anglers who keep tuna or swordfish from also keeping great, smooth or scalloped hammerhead sharks.

Shark experts and environmentalists applaud the FWC proposal and hope it clears the way for extending protections in both federal and international waters. Populations of all four species, according to FWC and federal fisheries biologists, have declined by more than half in recent decades, with studies suggesting smooth and scalloped hammerheads in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf down by as much as 98 percent and tigers reduced by at least 65 percent.

“It’s a big step but we’re going to need the federal government to step up and do their part as well,’’ said Neil Hammerschlag, a research assistant professor and shark expert at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Unlike most of the other 22 sharks on the state’s prohibited list, which are rare to nonexistent in coastal waters, tigers and hammerheads are prized by anglers and still show up at the end of fishing lines, though not nearly in the numbers seen decades ago.

“I’m out there 10 days a month doing shark research,’’ he said, “and I catch less than a handful of these a year.’’

Because sharks reach breeding maturity late in life and produce relatively few offspring, they’re particularly vulnerable to the impacts of overfishing, Hammerschlag said. Scientists estimate the gestation period of tiger sharks, for instance, at from nine to 15 months.

Jason Schratwieser, conservation director of the Dania Beach-based IGFA, said numerous international studies point to serious declines in the largest, ocean-going sharks like tigers and hammerheads. The great white, the infamous star of Jaws, has been so overfished it is already protected from commercial and recreational fishing in state and federal waters.

“I think you are seeing that these things need a little bit of a break,’’ said Schratwieser.

Though some people see sharks as nothing more than dangerous monsters, scientists say they serve important roles at the top of the ocean food chain, keeping the ecosystem in balance. Reducing their numbers can create unexpected and unwanted ripple effects.

The heaviest pressure on sharks extends far beyond Florida, driven largely by the Asian shark fin soup trade, but coastal waters are important breeding and feeding grounds — particularly for hammerheads. In the spring and summer, they show up en masse to feed on migrating tarpon that draw anglers to the Florida Keys and other hot spots like Boca Grande. The biggest angling prizes are typically the largest females, which also are the most prodigious producers of shark pups.

Though some recreational anglers have grumbled, FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said “we haven’t had a lot of push-back.’’

The rule, if approved, would make it a second-degree misdemeanor to catch and kill one of the sharks in state waters. The state is also developing an education campaign to promote safe catch-and-release using circle hooks and other gear that does less damage. The FWC is also considering a tag system that would allow anglers to pay to kill a limited number of sharks, such as potential record catches.

Fishing guide Dennis said he supports the proposed changes and won’t be pursing any records in the future, tag option or not.

“Now, it doesn’t mean as much to me as it did back then,’’ he said.

Though he “got a lot of flack’’ for killing the big hammerhead, he insisted something was lost in many of the stories, he said.

He said he had always practiced catch-and-release with sharks in a guiding career going back to 1998 — with three exceptions, for one tournament and for two hammerheads he knew qualified for the record books.

“I don’t like people being mad at me,’’ Dennis said. “I’d rather have people be happy and come give me money to take them fishing.’’

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