Underwatertimes.com News Service - December 11, 2009 17:54 EST

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) on Thursday approved a series of rules to enhance its long-standing policy to protect stressed shark populations in Florida waters. These rules also are generally consistent with recent management measures that have been implemented for sharks in coastal waters from Florida to Maine.

Sharks have been strictly regulated in Florida since 1992 with a one-fish-per-person/two-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).

"Florida has been a leader in shark management efforts," said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto, "and we are now bolstering our shark management rules to help ensure the sustainability of our marine ecosystem that relies in part on maintaining healthy shark populations."

The new FWC rules 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 rules 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 will help protect the juveniles of 14 species of sharks in Florida waters. The species where no size limit is required are considered to be at healthy population levels or don't warrant a minimum-size limit.

In addition, the rules prohibit the removal of shark heads and tails at sea allow only hook-and-line gear to harvest sharks, and make other administrative and technical rule changes. These rules take effect in mid-January.

In a related action, the FWC has proposed a draft rule that would prohibit all recreational and commercial harvest of lemon sharks from Florida waters.

Lemon sharks are slow-growing, produce relatively few offspring and are highly susceptible to fishing pressure, especially when they aggregate in shallow waters close to the shore. The Commission's proposed action is intended to limit the potential of overharvesting lemon sharks in state waters.

A final public hearing on the proposed lemon shark rule will be held during the February FWC meeting in Apalachicola.