Underwatertimes.com News Service - September 11, 2009 16:56 EST

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) on Thursday proposed rules to enhance its long-standing policy to protect stressed shark populations in Florida waters.

Sharks have been strictly regulated in Florida since 1992 with a 1-fish-per-person/2-fish-per-vessel daily bag limit for all recreational and commercial harvesters, a prohibition on nearly two dozen overfished or rare shark species, and a ban on the cruel and wasteful practice of harvesting only shark fins – called finning.

The Commission is proposing to bolster these rules to further protect sharks in Florida waters and comply with recent management measures that have been implemented for sharks in coastal waters from Florida to Maine.

The FWC's proposed rules would prohibit harvest of sandbar, silky and Caribbean sharpnose sharks from state waters. Sandbar sharks are considered overfished and are experiencing overfishing, which means that fishing pressure is too high to be sustainable. Silky sharks are highly vulnerable to overexploitation, and Caribbean sharpnose sharks do not occur in waters off Florida, so adding this species will have no effect on harvesters in state waters.

The proposed rules would also establish a 54-inch fork length minimum size limit for all sharks except Atlantic sharpnose, blacknose, bonnethead, finetooth and blacktip sharks and smooth dogfish. This would help 14 species of sharks reach maturity before they are taken in Florida waters. The species for which no size limit is required are considered to be at healthy population levels or don't warrant a minimum-size limit.

In addition, the proposed rules would prohibit the removal of shark heads and tails at sea, allow only hook-and-line gear to harvest sharks, and make other technical shark rule changes.

The Commission also directed staff to work with stakeholders and develop options to possibly add other shark species to the prohibited list, especially lemon sharks, and to require the use of circle hooks to harvest sharks in state waters.

"Florida has controlled the harvest of sharks for nearly 20 years and is recognized as a pioneer and a leader in shark-management efforts," said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto. "We are now proposing to add further protections to sharks to help ensure the sustainability of our marine ecosystem that relies, in part, on maintaining healthy shark populations."

A final public hearing on the proposed shark rules will be held during the December FWC meeting in Clewiston.