NAVARRE BEACH — Shark fishermen have gotten a bad rap over the years, according to Santa Rosa County resident Will Owen, and he and his club, No Bones Fishing, are determined to do what they can to improve their image.
“When shark fishing is done correctly it’s not bad, and we’re trying to kind of change the view of some of the public that shark fishermen are indiscriminate killers torturing animals,” Owen said.
Owen said his respect for sharks goes well beyond that of most folks.
"I love sharks," he said. "I've got shark tattoos. My favorite animal is sharks."
His club, comprised of Owen, Rob Donndelinger and James Williams, recently had a very big night of fishing. The group, casting off Navarre Beach, pulled in four sharks in just under three hours. All were tagged and released.
One of the sharks, a 9-foot, 11-inch bull shark that Owen believes to have been a pregnant female, weighed in at just under 550 pounds — which would put it at more than 30 pounds heavier than the previous state record for that species.
“I’ve seen longer sharks, but I’d never seen a shark that bulky, it was at least 76 inches in girth,” Owen said.
A pregnant shark can qualify for a state record, according to Melissa Crouch with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Owen said he had presented information about the catch to FWC but had not heard back and was not sure if what he had provided would be enough to allow the state record to be confirmed.
Pulling the big shark in was “like dragging a log,” Owen said, which made catching it not nearly as much fun as hooking the hammerhead they also brought in that night in early June.
“Hammerheads are big fast sharks with a lot of energy. They make a lot of runs on your reel,” he said.
The huge bull shark, feisty hammerhead and two nurse sharks also caught by the No Bones Fishing team were all tagged before being returned to the water unharmed. That, Owen said, is what makes his club a stand-up organization.
“My personal thing is that dead sharks on the beach are no good for anybody, especially shark fishermen,” he said. “It’s not good for tourism and it’s not good for the community to see dead sharks on the beach.”
No Bones Fishing gets tags from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through its Apex Predator Program. They are among thousands of volunteers across the country participating in the Cooperative Shark Tagging Program.
When the crew catches a shark, the animal is measured, tagged and released as quickly as possible. If the shark is caught at a later date, NOAA would hope that the “recapturing” will be documented with a new tag being applied and the original sent to Cooperative Shark Tagging Program headquarters in Rhode Island, a NOAA website said.
Tyler Bowling, a program manager for the Florida Program for Shark Research, said tagging efforts like those employed by No Bones Fishing, if done correctly, can provide great benefits.
“Tagging sharks can give us a multitude of information depending on the tags being used,” Bowling said. “For example GPS tags show the animals’ movements. We can identify habit, behaviors, migration patterns, and interactions with other species from this information.”
Though he said he did not know enough about No Bones Fishing to endorse the club’s efforts, Bowling said it sounded as though the group was one of many helping provide information about the secret lives of sharks.
“Our own organization works with citizen scientists on multiple levels. From reporting sightings of endangered sawfish to local fishermen showing us where they have caught sharks,” he said. “By working with these ‘lifelong learners’ or people with scientific interests, we can broaden our impact of knowledge as well as improve the amount of work we can achieve.”
No Bones Fishing works as a team when fishing from the beach. One member of the crew kayaks out from the shore to drop baits. The four sharks caught recently, Owen said, were swimming between 500 and 1,000 feet from shore.
The Navarre Beach fishing crew does not use chum — bloodied fish guts — to lure sharks to their baits, Owen said.
“Sharks are there regardless of whether people are chumming or not. There’s no reason to chum the water to bring them in any closer, they’re already there,” Owen said.
Chumming will be illegal when new laws regarding shark fishing go into effect on July 1.
New regulations, according to the FWC website, will include the creation of a mandatory, no-cost, annual shore-based shark fishing permit.
The changes will also require fishermen to leave some species of caught shark in the water during their release, and to cut a leader, line or hook to prevent delaying the release of prohibited shark species.
The new law will also require the use of non-offset, non-stainless steel circle hooks when fishing for shark using live or dead natural bait.
No Bones Fishing, a name which acknowledges the fact sharks don’t have bones, won’t have to worry about the changes to the law, Owen said.
“We’re already doing what the changes will require. It’s not affecting us at all,” he said.