Facebook photos led state and federal authorities to investigate whether some competitors at a South Carolina shark fishing tournament illegally landed prohibited species.
Three photos posted after the June 10 tournament appear to be of one dusky shark and two sandbar sharks, which federal law prohibits recreational anglers from catching, a state official said.
South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service are investigating. Fines could cost boat crews thousands of dollars if they illegally landed sharks in the tournament at Edisto Beach, south of Charleston.
“Our staff looked at it, and a number of people sent us photos asking whether they were legal or not,” said Wallace Jenkins, assistant director of DNR’s Office of Fisheries Management. “Based on the photos, some of them were questionable.”
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Law enforcement officers visited the tournament site last week to review evidence of what species were caught, Jenkins said. DNR law enforcement officers were at the tournament checking permits and safety gear, he said, but did not inspect every boat.
Dusky and sandbar sharks are among 21 species federally prohibited from recreational fishing because they’re overfished. Sandbar sharks may be caught under special research permits.
Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing because they don’t reproduce rapidly. It takes sharks years to reach sexual maturity, they have long gestation periods and produce few pups, as young sharks are called.
Fishing tournaments have to obtain federal permits to target highly migratory fish species including sharks, tunas and billfish, Jenkins said. Tournaments have to list what species are eligible to catch and report catch data after the event.
Penalties for catching prohibited shark species vary widely under federal law, from $2,000 to $100,000, depending on the gravity of the offense and whether it was negligent, reckless or intentional.
Most of the fish landed in the Edisto tournament were tiger sharks, Jenkins said, which are legal to catch if they measure at least 54 inches long.
Dillard Young, owner of tournament organizer Edisto Watersports and Tackle, said he thinks the fishermen who brought in the suspect sharks confused their species.
“We go over all the rules, and everybody’s supposed to abide by the rules and it seems like a couple of them didn’t and got tickets,” he said. “Those guys are smart enough that if they thought they had an illegal shark they wouldn’t put it on the scale.”
Thirteen sharks were landed in the tournament, an annual event since 2010. The winning shark was a 956-pound tiger shark.
Critics call shark tournaments blood sports that needlessly kill animals that already are caught by the millions each year. One long-running tournament, in its 31st year in Montauk, N.Y., offered $30,000 this year for the heaviest shark.
“These grisly spectacles portray as heroes fishermen who hook, bleed, gaff, and suffocate a shark to death simply for trophies, bragging rights, and cash prizes,” the Humane Society of the United States says.
Edisto Watersports, in a Facebook post, said the business has permission from DNR to hold the event, goes over rules with participating captains and contributes time and donations to conservation groups.
“For anyone to imply that we would support the ‘slaughter of endangered species’ just goes to show that they don’t have any idea of what we support!” the June 17 post said.
Dusky sharks are among species that are recognizable for the raised ridges between their dorsal fins – and all except tiger sharks are off limits to fishing. Sandbar sharks can resemble bull sharks, which are legal to catch, Jenkins said.
“The fact that (photos) were put on Facebook indicates that perhaps they didn’t know what they were,” Jenkins said.
New rules for dusky sharks, coming in 2018, will require anglers to take a course in identification and use circle hooks, which are less likely to be swallowed and make it easier to release a fish unharmed.
A second South Carolina shark tournament is scheduled for July 9 in Bennetts Point, according to federal a listing. None are listed in North Carolina.
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article included a photograph of the winners of the tournament. To clarify, the winners legally caught the winning fish, a tiger shark.