Jeff O’Neal said the only courses of action were to cut the tangled lines — which would amount to a death sentence — or bring the shark up onto the pier, which they did using ropes.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — One of the local fishermen who helped land a large tiger shark off the County Pier has come forward to defend the measures taken to save the shark’s life.

Jeff O’Neal, a member of what he called “the shark family,” was one of several people cited for catching the 12-foot-long tiger shark — a protected species — on the M.B. Miller County Pier early May 22. O’Neal, however, said in an interview Tuesday with The News Herald that without the group’s actions, the shark would have died.

Officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported the group caught the shark using hook and line and then reeled it in near the pier. Once there, about 19 people assisted in getting the shark onto the pier, where it lay for about six minutes as people posed with it for photo ops.

O’Neal said that was only half the story, though, adding the shark had become tangled up in other fishermen’s lines, which made it impractical to beach it and remove the hook from its mouth. He said the only courses of action were to cut the line — which would amount to a death sentence — or bring the shark up onto the pier, which they did using ropes.

“We have a lot of respect for these big fish, and we don’t want to hurt them,” he said.

After removing the hook and cleaning the shark, the group waited for a pier attendant to retrieve a crow bar so they could release the shark through the removed planks of the pier. In the meantime, people posed with it, O’Neal said.

“This was an old shark, too, and we just wanted to see him back in the water in good shape,” he said. “When we saw him swim away, that made us all happy.”

O’Neal, a longtime shark fisherman, said FWC’s laws concerning protected sharks are at times conflicting. In some places, the laws call for caught sharks to be beached and then released, while in other areas the law calls for anglers to act in the best interest of the shark.

“In my mind, best interest of the shark and common sense go together,” O’Neal said. “That is what we use with all the sharks we catch.”

A witness alerted FWC to the situation, and the men were cited for landing and possessing a protected species. A Tuesday court date is scheduled on the charges.

However, O’Neal said the outcome could have been much worse in the hands of a less-prepared and less-experienced group.

“We were all concerned for the shark,” he said, “but to our amazement and happiness he swam away.”