In February, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission unanimously voted to add several long-awaited shark fishing regulations to begin on July 1. Folio Weekly sat down with OneProtest’s Adam Sugalski to discuss these new rules.
It can be exciting to tame a creature stronger than oneself, but this superiority complex is killing prohibited sharks and endangering harvestable ones. In the struggle to pull a shark aboard and have a photo session, that shark’s body is creating lactic acid. If the shark survives long enough to swim away, it can experience extreme stress and even death in the wild.
“I’ve seen so many videos of, ‘We caught a big hammerhead.’ All these pictures, [anglers] sit on it. They let it go, and their hammerhead just flops over and dies on the shore. And with prohibited species especially, hammerheads among other ones, you basically have to leave them in the water.” Sugalski said. “And [the FWC is] recommending you cut the leader as close as you can, so you have to have bolt cutters.”
According to Sugalski, the founder and executive director of OneProtest, the nonprofit serves as the “glue that holds the book together.” Shark advocates had been urging FWC commissioners to create and enforce new regulations for more than a year before they voted on the issue in February. Activists eventually contacted OneProtest, which used its marketing and outreach skills to gain support throughout the state.
Since 2015, Sugalski and his team have fought for the humanitarian treatment of animals in circuses, zoos and puppy mills, among other businesses. OneProtest’s coverage of and anger regarding the reinstatement of recreational bear hunting in Florida in 2015 gained international attention. The FWC has banned the sport every year since. Sugalski says this is what changed the tide for animal advocacy in Florida.
“The bear hunters came out in force. We were outnumbered in that one meeting. They were screaming at the commissioners in the open public comment, and the commissioner was pissed. He’s like, 'Listen, I represent 20 million people. You’re less than 1 percent of the population. I have to start listening to all the Floridians, and Floridians don’t want to bear hunt,' ” Sugalski remembers. “And that’s where a shift happened in the FWC.”
The FWC is moving in a promising direction with fresh faces, a new attitude and new regulations. Sugalski doesn’t think commissioners as recently as five years ago could have successfully passed these laws, because the power was in the hands of hunters. But new regulations don’t mean much without enforcement.
“What we’re worried about is the FWC only has 850 officers for the state, roughly. I mean, in Duval County we have over 2,400 JSO guys just for Duval County,” Sugalski said. “And so with all the coast, 8,000 miles of coastline, a million acres of wetlands and rivers, how do you expect them to even police this stuff?”
OneProtest’s plan: Start a shark watch. The idea is that Floridians and tourists can serve as another pair of eyes. The more educated the general public is, the more they can identify harmful practices, and the fewer people want to catch prohibited sharks for pictures: It’s a win-win for sharks, the FWC and the tourism industry.
“The mayor of Melbourne Beach ... he’s been fighting this for a decade, because, you know, you have people swimming and surfing and everything else and some guy is kayaking some bait offshore and chumming—that’s bad for tourism,” Sugalski said. “I think without citizens’ pressure, you know, these laws might be kind of watered down.”
When I spoke with him Friday, June 28, he said he planned on watching the now mandatory “Shark-Smart Fishing” education course found here to see exactly what regulators expect of shark-fishers. To be clear, Sugalski doesn’t want to stop shark fishing altogether. The focus is on stopping those who are inexperienced and looking for that Instagram-worthy moment from further endangering vulnerable shark species.
“If you notice the certain gear they have and then you see them pulling up a shark, especially if it’s a hammerhead—they are not allowed to be taken out of the water at all, period, on a boat or on land—So if you see that, take a picture of it, send it to the FWC, they have a tip line,” Sugalski said. “Call the FWC, but if you can get them the kind of shark it is, what you think is happening, so you can at least get them a little bit of accurate before they even get there.”
For more information on the shark fishing laws, visit floridasharks.org.