Florida Keys, Fla. – Waterways across the state of Florida are facing a multitude of challenges, such as rising temperatures, pollution, and development. However, some areas are experiencing these issues more intensely than others. In an effort to shed light on the situation, reporter Sophia Hernandez and photojournalist Antony Sherrod embarked on a special series of reports titled “The State of our Seas.”
One particular challenge that South Florida is grappling with, and which some believe has not abated, is the increasing number of sharks in our waters. But the question remains: are there truly more sharks, or are we simply encountering them more frequently?
Local fisherman Nick Stanczyk expressed his perspective, stating, “It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s five times now as many as there used to be.” Videos capturing shark encounters in various parts of Florida have inundated social media platforms, capturing the attention of many.
“The last five years, in particular, have witnessed an insane influx of sharks – a lot more of them, and they are a lot more aggressive in areas where we have never seen them before,” explained Nick Stanczyk. As the owners of Stanz Fishing, the Stanczyk brothers have been operating their marina for several years, attracting fishing enthusiasts from far and wide. However, the recent decrease in the number of fish bites has become a growing concern.
“They have days where they cannot catch a snook,” Nick Stanczyk shared. “Sometimes, they encounter six to eight big lemon sharks that devour about 90% of the fish they hook. They even attempt to move spots, but the sharks persistently trail behind the boat.”
The Stanczyk brothers are uncertain about the reasons behind the surge in shark sightings and interactions. Seeking answers, Hernandez interviewed Dr. Catherine Macdonald, the director of the University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation Program. Macdonald posited, “When we discuss an increase in shark sightings, it is often a result of more people being on the lookout for sharks, rather than a genuine increase in their population.”
Macdonald also highlighted research indicating that certain protected shark populations are rebounding, although not to the extent one might assume. She elucidated, “Sharks, in general, have slow growth rates and reproduce relatively slowly compared to other fish species. Consequently, sharks are more susceptible to overfishing, making their management a more intricate task.”
According to NOAA, U.S. shark fisheries are among the most regulated in the world. In Florida, catching one shark per day, up to two per boat, is permitted, with specific species and size restrictions in place. The practice of shark finning, which involves removing a shark’s fin and discarding the rest at sea, has been outlawed nationwide since 2000. Additionally, Florida enacted legislation two decades later, making it illegal to import, export, or sell shark fins within the state, except for permitted commercial fishermen and seafood dealers.
While progress has been made, some individuals argue that it is still insufficient. “If a shark is legally caught, we should be able to utilize every part of it. Frankly, it is quite disheartening that we discard a portion of the animal we harvested,” expressed fisherman Robert Navarro, also known as “Fly,” who organizes big game fishing tournaments globally. Navarro believes that harvesting the entire shark, similar to other fish, presents a better solution to the issue of finning and could help maintain shark populations.
Navarro’s concern lies not solely with the sharks themselves but also with how their presence affects us. He warned that if interactions with sharks continue to increase, it may eventually impact tourism, as people become fearful due to sensationalized headlines about shark attacks.
“While animosity grows among those affected by numerous shark encounters, we must be cautious about drawing a line,” Navarro stated. Although there may be a slight increase in the shark population, Macdonald reiterates that it is primarily linked to climate change. The progressively warmer waters each year affect the migratory patterns and metabolism of sharks, forcing them to consume more to survive.
While some advocate for drastic measures to control shark numbers, Macdonald reminds us of their crucial role in the ecosystem. “Sharks prey on other species, which helps regulate their populations and shape their evolution. They also influence the behavior of their prey. Removing sharks from an area risks not only an increase in prey numbers but also behavioral changes that could harm the ecosystem,” Macdonald emphasized.
For those who depend on their daily catches for their livelihoods, sharks have become a formidable challenge, negatively impacting restaurants, the food market, and their overall income. One potential solution proposed by industry members is the consumption of sharks, as practiced in countries like Indonesia and Spain. However, whether this becomes a reality remains uncertain.
“Killing a shark is widely stigmatized and heavily condemned. But in South Florida, that perception is changing, especially considering the significant increase in shark sightings and interactions over the past few years. People down here are undeniably frustrated,” Nick Stanczyk revealed.
The issue of shark management in Florida’s waters is a complex one, requiring a delicate balance between conservation efforts and addressing the concerns of those directly affected. As the debate continues, the fate of these magnificent creatures hangs in the balance, with implications for both the environment and the economy.