TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Using chum to attract sharks in waters used by beachgoers, surfers and divers is closer to being banned in Florida, despite concerns the change will further squeeze out “blue collar” angling.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed Wednesday to place a number of shark-fishing changes on its February agenda, from the chumming restriction to a requirement that people who cast for sharks from land annually get a no-cost permit that requires taking an online educational program.
People younger than 16 or over 65 would be exempt from the permitting requirement.
Jessica McCawley, the commission’s director of marine fisheries management, said the changes are an attempt to balance the interests of anglers and other people who use state waters, while also helping the agency learn how many people engage in land-based shark fishing.
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.
Supporters of the proposed changes said Wednesday they would like more restrictions on where people can toss fish parts, bones and blood to lure sharks.
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.
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.
In calling for the rules to go deeper, proponents urged a set distance from shore for the chumming restriction as a way to keep boaters from engaging in the activity near shore.
“Maintaining a safer shoreline for both our residents and guests is of paramount concern for the town,” said Robert Weber, the coastal program manager for Palm Beach who recommended chumming be banned within at least a half-mile of the shoreline. “The town appreciates the steps that have been taken and are expected to be taken by FWC to help municipalities like the town best protect our residents and any visitors using our beaches.”
Melbourne Beach Mayor Jim Simmons added there should be no age exemptions for the permits since there is no cost and the aim is to educate people on the rules.
“We want to know who is fishing and want to know that they are doing it per the standards we’ve established,” Simmons said. “It also documents who has taken these classes so they can never claim ‘I didn’t know.’ ”