Those fishing from Florida’s coastlines may soon be barred from the popular practice of using chum to attract sharks near beaches.
Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, meeting in St. Augustine Wednesday, voted unanimously to move forward with the new rules, pending a final vote in February.
Amanda Nalley, the Commission’s spokeswoman, said a lot of people have raised concerns about how shore-based shark fishing is managed.
“Be it concern for the species itself and how it’s being handled when it’s being handled and released to concerns about public safety,” she said. “And also to concerns about those who have participated in this tradition for many years and want to continue to participate in it.”
Other proposed regulations include requiring annual permit renewals along with an online course and requiring those who fish for sharks to use appropriate cutters.
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The changes will be aired a final time at a public hearing in February.
The commission has said fishing hasn’t impacted shark populations, which the state has worked to rebuild and maintain, but it has created “anxiety” among beachgoers.
But Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission member Michael Sole, vice president of environmental services at NextEra Energy, said he supports the proposals, in part, because of the educational component and because they don’t prohibit the practice from guarded beaches.
“I acknowledge that there is a concern from the stakeholder public,” said Sole, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “But when you go to the research and the data that is there, and the desire of continuing education and training, I think that can be managed just through a little bit of common sense.”
A number of large fishing organizations backed the rules, in part, because the proposal would allow people to continue to cast from the shoreline. However, a few critics argued the changes would further limit where people can fish.
“My experience with shore-based fishermen is that they don’t own boats, they’re blue-collar fishermen and they’re getting squeezed,” said Fernandina Beach resident Karl Shaffer. “Not shark fishermen, but fishermen. You can’t fish here. You can’t fish there.”
Proposed changes also deal with required gear and a requirement that people engaged in the catch and release of sharks keep the sharks wet while being released.
Ernest Polk, who described himself as a third-generation land-based shark fisherman from Milton, said he tries to avoid crowds along the shore even though “it’s everyone’s beach,” and people need to understand that at times a shark dies before it can be released.
“We should be able to pull that shark up, take the hook out of it and release it,” Polk said. “And if it dies, we should be able to take it home.”
The state prohibits harvesting 26 species of sharks.
The commission’s director Jessica McCawley doesn’t view the proposal as restricting where shark fishing can occur, while saying she could envision the commission revisiting the rule changes in a couple of years as the educational piece is established.
“I think this package as a whole is really a first step,” McCawley said. “After we have that permit in place for a couple of years, if you guys want to get an update and look at how that is working, and you want to do something additional, I would consider this your first step.”
She noted that the state couldn’t verify an argument that chumming makes near-shore waters more dangerous as sharks regularly inhabit and feed near shore.
If the staff recommendations are approved in February, it would be at least another month before the new regulations would be implemented.