South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

Taking a Bite: Shark Depredation and Fisheries Management

Bull shark swims in the shallows.

Shark depredation has become one of the most consistent concerns from fishermen providing public comment to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. This is especially true when the topic is snapper grouper species, including Red Snapper, as well as coastal migratory pelagics, such as King and Spanish Mackerel. Both commercial and recreational fishermen share their frustration of increasingly having to “pay the tax man” as sharks frequently take a bite, and sometimes the entire body of a fish, before it reaches the boat.

In the Southeastern U.S., NOAA Fisheries Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Division manages sharks in federal waters. According to NOAA Fisheries, sharks have been caught recreationally in the U.S. since at least the 19th century but were not consistently caught commercially until the 1920s. Concerns by the regional fishery management councils in the 1980s about fishing pressure on shark stocks prompted a request to the Secretary of Commerce that they be managed. A 1992 stock assessment by NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center showed a number of shark species were overfished, propelling the first federal fishery management plan for sharks in 1993. An overview of 30 years of Atlantic shark fisheries management is available from NOAA Fisheries.

Photo: Captain Ira Laks

Recognition by the Council

The issue of shark depredation is not new to the Council members. Many Council members have first-hand experience, and all have certainly heard concerns from constituents. The Council has submitted multiple letters to NOAA Fisheries over the past several years relaying concerns about the dramatic increase in interactions with several large shark species, including bull, blacktip, silky, tiger, hammerhead, great white, sandbar, and dusky sharks. The most recent letter, sent in August 2023 in response to proposed shark management measures, noted that “cumulatively, these shark species are causing devastating consequences for many recreational and commercial fishermen that use hook and line, spear, bottom longline, and trawl gear,” and noted the negative conservation impacts to Council-managed species and fisheries, especially snapper grouper and coastal migratory pelagics.

Fishermen also claim that shark behavior has changed, with increased instances of sharks circling or lurking around fishing and dive vessels, waiting for the right opportunity to strike, resulting in damaged fish and often loss of fishing gear. The letter to NOAA Fisheries acknowledged that sharks are causing fishermen to change their behavior as well. Both recreational and commercial fishermen say they have to move more often or fish further offshore to try and avoid shark depredation. This increases trip costs and can have adverse economic outcomes for for-hire and commercial vessels. In some cases, fishermen frustrated with shark depredation have reported not going fishing at all, increasing negative economic consequences.

Photo: Captain Ira Laks

The Council’s letter to NOAA Fisheries noted the need to develop a better balance between the conservation of sharks and other federally managed species. The Council supports measures being considered by NOAA Fisheries to allow an increase in shark landings, while maintaining sustainability, and to expand markets for shark meat.

No Easy Solution

“This is an issue that affects management”, said Jessica McCawley, Council representative for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “In addition to the comments received by the Council, we are being inundated with comments at FWC relative to shark depredation.”

In June 2023, the Council received an update on Atlantic shark management during its meeting in St. Augustine, Florida. Karyl Brewster-Geisz, the branch chief for regulations of NOAA Fisheries Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Division, explained that a new framework has been established to implement Acceptable Biological Catch (ABCs) and annual catch limits (ACLs) for Atlantic sharks. She also noted the availability of NOAA Fisheries Shark Fishery Review (SHARE) document identifying areas of success, concerns, and potential modifications to shark regulations and management measures in the future.

“In the SHARE document, we reviewed the entire shark fishery, and all of the factors involved in it”, explained Brewster-Geisz. “We identified areas of success along with areas where we need to potentially make changes to regulations.” Brewster-Geisz also noted external factors affecting the fishery, including a 2022 CITES listing of bonnethead sharks and the proposed listing of carcharhinids (a group that includes most managed sharks) in November 2023. The listings affect international trade. In addition, the 2022 Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act also negatively affected the domestic commercial fishery.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

NOAA Fisheries is currently developing Amendment 16 to the HMS Fishery Management Plan that could result in notable changes to the commercial and recreational shark fisheries including changes in quotas, shark management groups, shark retention or bag limits, and minimum size limits. The amendment takes into consideration factors identified in the SHARE document. Public scoping meetings were held earlier this year and additional opportunities will be provided for public comment.

The answer to shark depredation may not be as simple as increasing quota, however. The commercial shark fisheries in both the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico are not reaching their current quotas. As of October 2023, only 51% of the aggregated Large Coastal Shark quota had been met in the South Atlantic. The numbers are similar in the Gulf. “The shark fishing industry, as I know it, prior to 2006, is done and gone and it’s not coming back unless it’s subsidized by the government at two-bucks a pound for shark,” said Captain Dewey Hemilright, a commercial fisherman from Wanchese, NC and liaison for the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council during the June 2023 meeting. “The Shark Fin Elimination Act removed the majority of economic incentive to harvest large coastal sharks,” explained Hemilright. “Now fins are discarded at the dock and the U.S. shark fishery, one of the most sustainable in the world, is unfairly paying the price.” He called for additional cooperative research involving the shrinking pelagic longline industry and noted continuing costs to the industry for vessel monitoring and observers. “Under current conditions, shark depredation will only continue to increase.”

Research and Reporting

The shark fishery is one of the most highly regulated in the U.S. In addition to a long list of commercial requirements in federal waters, HMS vessel permits and shark endorsements are required for recreational harvest. Despite regulation, there is general consensus that more studies are needed to better understand shark depredation. In a 2022 Position Statement on Addressing Shark Interactions, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) “supports efforts to assess and better understand the occurrence of conflicts between sharks and fishing vessels, and ultimately inform strategies to reduce shark interactions.”

One such study was highlighted as part of the SAFMC Seminar Series in November 2022. The seminar, A Citizen Science Approach to Characterize Shark Depredation in Recreational Fisheries focused on new and innovative ways scientists are quantifying shark depredation in recreational fisheries in the southeastern U.S. Dr. Matt Ajemian with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in collaboration with Dr. Marcus Drymon with Mississippi State University, worked with recreational fishermen to acquire depredation data (composition, frequency, etc.). Study methods included traditional surveys of anglers as well as forensic analysis of depredated fish carcasses to better understand the species of sharks damaging the fish.

Dr. Ajemian noted during the seminar that a national survey conducted in 2022 showed that 77% of anglers have experienced depredation, with Florida being a hot spot. Combining social media, survey and forensic analyses, the study found that bull sharks were responsible for the majority of shark depredation but nearly 80% of depredation is unseen. The survey also found that perception of depredation varies among user groups, including charter captains, commercial fishermen, and recreational anglers.

Cooperative research projects continue in 2023, with NOAA Fisheries providing grant funding for a cooperative project involving recreational fishermen in tagging bull sharks to better understand the impacts of recreational fishing. A second project involves cooperative research with commercial fishermen to collect bull sharks to better understand their life history in anticipation of a benchmark stock assessment scheduled for 2024.

What You Can Do

Cooperative research and the use of citizen science is also supported by ASA, “In the future, cooperative research partnerships and citizen science opportunities for anglers, such as using electronic reporting to report interactions should be considered along with education on the importance of reporting shark depredation.”

The Council’s Citizen Science Program includes a project that allows fishermen to report interactions with sharks. The SAFMC Release project partners with commercial, for-hire, and recreational fishermen to collect information on released shallow water grouper and Red Snapper, using the free mobile app, SciFish. Data collected through the project includes fish length, depth of release, optional location, descending device use, and shark depredation observations.   Through the project, fishermen’s on-the-water observations provide valuable insight into the snapper grouper fishery and may help inform assessments and management. Want to join? Information on becoming a part of the SAFMC Release Project is available from the project’s webpage.

“The Council will continue to follow the issue of shark predation and work with NOAA Fisheries to address management needs,” said Dr. Carolyn Belcher, Council Chair. “We encourage fishermen to stay involved in shark management efforts through NOAA Fisheries and participate in SAFMC Release to help provide information. Clearly this is a complex problem that is going to require some innovative solutions.”