By Dr. Bob Shipp:
With the continual changes in regulations and the fines attached to fishing violations, it is very important to correctly identify your catch. And there’s no group of Gulf fishes more difficult to identify than the sharks. And also, there’s no group of Gulf fishes with more protected species than sharks.
There is a small culture of anglers that targets sharks, and anybody fishing our coast will likely land a shark now and then. Best we know which species they are and if they’re protected.
Now there’s no way in this column to detail each species. For that I highly recommend my guide to Gulf fishes.
But there are a few shark features that will help most of the time, and they might keep you out of trouble. First, the most abundant nearshore species that is not totally protected (but with variable bag limits) is the Atlantic sharpnose. These little guys top out at about 3 feet, and are easily recognized by a few whitish spots splashed over the body. Nine times out of 10, if you catch a small shark nearshore, it’s one of these. Other small sharks not totally protected are the black nose (identified by a black smudge on the snout) and fine tooth (no body markings at all).
When you get to the larger sharks, we get to some species that are totally protected. Three that are frequently caught are the ridgebacks: the silky, dusky and sand bar. These three share a truly diagnostic feature, a distinct ridge on the back between the two dorsal fins. They are totally protected. And although the differences between the three are too subtle for this piece, that ridge is enough to warrant a quick release.
As to common large sharks not totally protected (they all have some bag or size restrictions), the most common are the bull, black tip and spinner. They lack the ridge on the back and are abundant nearshore. Bulls get well up in the estuaries. Black tips love the passes. Spinners are usually more than 10 miles from shore.
There are also three species of large hammerheads, and they have minimum sizes in most states, but are protected in Florida. It doesn’t matter which of the three are taken, because the rules are the same for all. And their close relative, the smaller scalloped hammerhead, is not protected.
Tiger sharks are easy to identify with their distinctive markings, and the makos can be recognized by their tails, which are almost symmetrical, very un-shark like.
Other species are rare in our area, but if you nail a shark that doesn’t fit any of the above, best to release it. I’ll finish with a frequently told but true story. A number of years ago, at The Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, a huge nurse shark, in excess of 10 feet came to the weigh station. While it was being hung, one of our graduate students eased over to the proud angler and quietly passed word that it was a protected species. The angler quickly had the beast lowered into the water and jumped in after it. He began walking the shark in the shallows to pass water through the gills. Shortly, the shark slowly swam away from the weigh station, to the delight of a greatly relieved angler.
Dr. Bob Shipp is author of Dr. Bob Shipp’s Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, available at bobshipp.com. He is professor emeritus of marine science at the University of South Alabama and judge at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo.