SACGB Best Practice Document
Sharks are more fragile than many anglers, and skippers realise. Once removed from the water their gills and internal organs are easily damaged because they are not protected by an internal skeleton. Injury to their spinal column and internal organs is particularly likely to occur if the fish is lifted by its head or tail, or forced down onto a hard, dry surface.
Sharks play an important part in regulating the ecological structure and function of our oceans. In order to maintain healthy shark populations, it is imperative that when caught they are handled correctly and released properly to minimise harm and post-release mortality.
This code of conduct aims to provide guidance to anglers and skippers in best practise when catching, handling and releasing sharks. The objective of these protocols is to minimise internal and external physical damage and in doing so maximise the shark’s chances of long-term survival after its release.
A. Be Prepared: Sharks are strong fish and handling them requires experience, space, the correct equipment and detailed planning. Anglers planning to use their own vessels are advised to first gain experience from trips with an experienced and capable charter skipper. An angler in a small private boat dealing with a shark for the first time without prior experience is likely to put the welfare of the shark, themselves, others on the boat and the fabric of the boat at risk.
The advantage of using a professional charter skipper, apart from their experience, is that their vessels are generally more spacious and often have other features which greatly assist with the handling and release of the shark.
Whether the shark is going to be released at the side of the boat or boarded and then released, planning the event is essential. Time lost looking for a dehooking tool or a camera etc, increases the risk to the
shark’s survival. All the necessary equipment must therefore be together in a place or places, which are known to all on board.
A professional skipper will direct those on board by allocating tasks to individuals, e.g. who is responsible for passing the skipper the de-hooking tool, cutters, who is taking photographs, who is recording measurements etc.
Anglers and skippers should remember the oft quoted universal truth, “fail to plan, plan to fail”
Figure 1: A selection of tools required for shark fishing, including dehookers, gloves and T-Bars, wire cutters, and pliers. If, like the author, you tend to lose things over the side of the boat, it is best to have plenty of spares.
B. Use The Correct Gear: There is a wide range of sharking gear available from very light to very heavy.
Using very heavy gear reduces the feel of the fish and can result in an unsatisfactory experience for the angler and very light gear can reduce
the ability to protect the welfare of the shark which must always be the leading priority.
An inexperienced angler with light gear will in all probability lose fish with the result that they then swim around with a hook and trace and perhaps a length of line dragging behind them.
In choosing gear, anglers and skippers should always endeavour to achieve a balance between their desire for sport and the welfare of the shark with the bias always being in favour of the shark.
Stainless hooks must never be used. A rapidly corrodible hook will eventually fall away and if gut hooked the shark’s stomach digestive acids will dissolve a non-stainless hook in around 3 to 4 days.
Barbless or filed down barbed hooks are much easier to remove and are the preferred choice.
Regardless whether a circle hook (preferred), Japanese ringed hook or a J hook is used, it should be set as quickly as possible to increase the probability of the shark being hooked in the corner of the mouth and not in the gut.
Circle hooks are designed to hook the shark in the corner of the mouth, so they are easier to remove. They also remove the need to strike. Overly large circles do however tend to pull through the eyes of small sharks.
It is preferable not to use balloons for floats as they mimic jelly fish and are eaten by other marine species.
Figure 2 A selection of hooks used for shark fishing. (Left to right) Mustad Hoodlum; Mustad Sea Demon Circle; Mustad Sea Master, Unbranded Circle hook; Mustad 39960ST-DT. All hooks apart from the Sea Master and the 39960ST-DT have had the barbs crushed flat
C. Fishing Technique: To reduce the risk of injury and exhaustion to the shark, the float should be constantly observed to give the best chance of setting the hook early.
Once hooked, the skipper should allocate tasks so that everyone knows their role. The location/access to, de-hooking tools and other items required to facilitate the quick and safe release of the shark should be checked.
Regardless of the gear used the fight time should be minimised in order to reduce the build-up of lactic acid in the shark’s tissues and reduce exhaustion and stress.
Figure 3 Blue Shark being released at the side of the boat using an ARC dehooker. Note the position of the barbless circle hook in the jaw.
D. Release – at the side of the boat: Bring the shark alongside the boat. Do not use a gaff or tailer to help bring it closer. Use a de-hooking tool to remove the hook. If the shark has been deep hooked, then cut the trace as close to the hook as possible. Do not hold the shark by the gills as this can lead to serious injury and even death.
E. Boarding and Release: Preferably release the fish at the side of the boat. When bringing the shark alongside the boat. do not use a gaff or tailer to bring it closer.
Sharks are fragile when removed from the water and extreme care must be taken when handling them. A sling is the best method of removing a shark from the water but this may not be practical for most charter boats.
Boarding sharks by pulling them into the boat across the gunwale can lead to internal bruising which can cause death. Tag failure analysis has proved this practise results in up to 50% of sharks boarded in this manner dying within a few days.
Some sharks can be unhooked at the side of the boat.
Boats with an access door give the best entry to the deck. These can be improved by draping a wet mat over the edge of the deck underneath the door. Do not lift the shark out of the water by its head, gills or tail. It is acceptable to use a small chin gaff (taking care avoid the eyes and gills) to help slide the fish aboard. Bring the shark aboard horizontally so not to tear any ligaments, tendons, or damage organs.
Small sharks (circa 30lbs) are best handled with both hands, one on the dorsal fin, pectoral fin or neck (i.e. between the gills and the dorsal fin) and the other holding the tail or supporting the body. Medium to large sharks should be handled by two persons. One person holds the head, dorsal fin and/or pectoral fin while the other holds the tail and supports the body. The belly and teeth should always face away from the handlers.
The shark should be laid on its side on a soft area rather than a hard deck. This can be achieved by using a damp mat. At a very minimum the deck should be well doused with water to keep it cool and moist.
Do not squeeze, kick, kneel, hold or wrestle with the shark. The shark should be held by its head, midsection and tail with the belly and teeth facing away from the handler(s). Never put your hand on the tip of its nose as this is the location of some of its most important sensory organs.
Use a de-hooking tool to remove the hook. If the shark has been deep hooked, then cut the trace as close to the hook as possible. Do not hold the shark by the gills as this can lead to serious injury and even death.
Be as quick as possible without endangering either you or the fish.
If the shark is to be out of the water for close to 3 minutes then it may be ventilated by running salt water in its mouth or by directing it across the outside of the gills. Ensure the boat hose is put on a low-pressure setting (a high-pressure water feed will potentially cause damage to the shark) and is running before putting it in the shark’s mouth. Care must be taken not to push the hose down its throat. It can be useful to have a steel tube end on the hose, so the shark will bite on it and hold it in place.
F. Stress Test: Before returning a Blue shark to the water it is possible to get an indication of how stressed it is. This is done by testing the sharks eye reflex. Tap next to the eye and if the eyelid closes quickly it is in good condition. If the eyelid is sluggish or not responsive the shark should be returned to the water as quickly as possible.
The first rule in taking pictures/video is to have the equipment readily available. Time lost looking for cameras needlessly increases the time taken to release the shark. Go Pro’s are particularly useful when visual recording is required.
In all cases it is better to take a photograph/video of the shark whilst it is on its side on the deck. When moving a shark, it is important to remember that their gills and internal organs are easily damaged because they are not protected by an internal skeleton.
A shark laid on its belly on the deck or across an angler’s legs will transfer the weight of the fish directly into its internal organs which can cause serious damage to the fish.
If a shark is being lifted to rest on an angler(s) knees or to chest height and held in the arms of an angler(s), careful consideration must be given to how the fish is moved from its rest position to the anglers chosen position.
The fish must always be fully supported along its length, which requires enough anglers with sufficient experience and strength. Sharks are not always compliant when being moved into a position for a photograph and their sudden movements can lead to the angler(s) pulling, squashing and bending it into an unnatural position, albeit for a short period. This can easily be enough to cause lasting damage to the shark.
Finally – if a shark is treated with respect its chances of survival are very high, however any mishandling, not matter how small, can considerably increase post release mortality. We owe it to these incredible creatures to protect them so adopt best practise at all times and remember, “Fail to plan, plan to fail”