Record-Breaking Hammerhead Catches Deadly, Possibly Illegal, Says Marine Biologist

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Last week a local 21-year-old made international headlines for snagging a 13-foot hammerhead while fishing off the pier at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. After his friend's line bent hard and the huge fish was pulled in closer, Ryan Bolash dragged the shark onto a beach full of stunned onlookers.

"It was flailing around, everything like that," one witness later said. "It was really cool."

The famous snag was only the latest in a spate of recent high-profile hammerhead catches. But according to one marine biologist, the sharks' lives were in danger and the fishermen were probably breaking the law.

In March a group of Florida Atlantic University students made headlines when they caught a 14-foot, estimated 700-pound hammerhead (and posted a YouTube video of the ordeal, now viewed more than a million times), and in February a man was featured on local television after winning a South Florida fishing tournament with his hammerhead catch.

All the fishermen expressed concern for the animals' well-being and released the sharks. "They're an amazing creature," Bolash said. "I don't know why anyone would want to hurt them."

But the fishers also struggled for an hour or more with the animals to reel them in -- hammerheads are renowned fighters -- and took photos and measurements before releasing the sharks. Keeping the animals on land even for a few minutes can prove fatal, says a University of Miami marine biologist. And thanks to a 2012 law aimed at protecting the species -- which is endangered -- it's also illegal.

"Think about if we were holding your head underwater for several minutes while scuba divers were taking a picture," says David Shiffman, the biologist. "You're not adapted to survive in that world."

Of shark species, Shiffman says, hammerheads have among the highest stress responses to being caught. They fight instantly and vigorously, which makes the shark popular with fishermen looking for an adrenaline rush. But it also means hammerheads are more likely to die from the stress and fatigue of a protracted battle with a fishing line, even if they're released promptly once they're finally reeled in.

Shiffman is particularly miffed at those who brag of hours-long "epic fights" to bring in the hammerheads. "The 'fight' is the animal literally trying not to die," he says. "[It's] putting every bit of energy it has into not being killed."

There's no reliable hammerhead count available, Shiffman says, but he estimates the shark's population has declined by as much as 90 percent since the 1970s. In 2012 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission passed a regulation prohibiting the killing of three varieties, including the great hammerhead, the largest. But the law also prohibits "landing" of the sharks, meaning it's illegal to bring them ashore unless they are "immediately returned to the water free, alive, and unharmed."

Keeping the hammerheads on the beach to measure them or pose for a picture, Shiffman contends, means the animals aren't being immediately released, and the stressful fight to reel them in means they're not left unharmed.

The biologist estimates that in recent years hundreds of hammerheads have been pulled ashore, often during the night or in unpopulated areas where the practice can go unnoticed.

"'Oh yeah, of course we released it. We don't want to hurt the animals,'" he said, mimicking the fishermen's typical response. "But they're using illegal actions that hurt the animals. Their heart's in the right place, but their actions need to match it."

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