Untamed Lowcountry

Does fishing off Hilton Head beaches attract more sharks? Here's what experts say

Driving to the beach on Mother's Day, Gina Padgett and her husband discussed the recent shark sightings they had heard about in the area.

Padgett, 45, of Savannah, wasn't expecting what was soon to come.

While walking along the ocean Sunday on Tybee Island, just south of Hilton Head Island, Padgett stopped when she saw a man struggling with a fishing pole. Soon enough he was dragging a small shark out of the water.

"It was exciting for me, because I had never been that close to a shark," Padgett said.

After leaving the beach, Padgett posted videos and photos of the experience on her Facebook page and it quickly went viral. Over the past two days, the post has been shared more than 1,600 times with many expressing frustration over how the fisherman handled the situation.

Padgett didn't know the fisherman who reeled in the shark, but seeing people swim nearby, she said she decided to try and educate others.

"I hope that people would just be mindful of the territory — that the ocean is nice to be in and play in and be around, but it's not our territory. It's theirs," she said, referring to sharks.

Shark fishing, as well as using live or bloody bait, is prohibited on all Tybee Island beaches.

The same is true for Hilton Head beaches.

General fishing is also outlawed in designated swimming areas on Hilton Head between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. April 1 through Sept. 30.

Mike Wagner, Hilton Head Island Shore Beach Services director, said he rarely has problems with anglers fishing in designated swimming areas. But anyone fishing outside the swimming areas who catches a shark is instructed to stop fishing for the rest of the day.

For years, residents in the Lowcountry and surrounding coastal areas have questioned if fishing along the beach attracts more sharks to an area.

In 2016, Hilton Head Island Town Council considered an ordinance that would have prohibited fishing on all of the island’s beaches from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily during tourist season.

The proposed ordinance, which was eventually shut down, was sparked by some residents' fears that sport fishing was attracting sharks to the shoreline.

At that time, a spokesperson from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources told Town Council that they were concerned the ordinance sent the "wrong message" because there was "no documented evidence that shark bites are directly associated with fishing."

After a shark bit a 10-year-old boy on Hilton Head Sunday afternoon, the conversation was again sparked among Hilton Head residents and tourists.

Jei Turrell's right arm was bitten while he and his brother were playing in waist-deep water at a beach in Palmetto Dunes. Turrell was airlifted to the Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah for medical treatment after suffering heavy blood loss, according to his mother.

One person commented on The Island Packet story: "I think it’s a dangerous practice to allow dozens of people every day to put bait in the water where hundreds of small kids are swimming. It seems they could have designated fishing areas far away from the main stretches of beach to cut down on these tragedies."

George H. Burgess, director emeritus at the Florida Program for Shark Research, said there is "no doubt" that fishing from the shoreline near swimming beaches will attract sharks into an area.

"Fishing from the beach or from piers involves putting bait in the water and bait by definition is attractive," Burgess said. "... Bait looking to attract desirable game fish also attracts sharks. And fish struggling frantically on those hooks and lines are highly attractive to predators like sharks."

But shark attacks, such as what happened to Turrell on Sunday, don't always have to be invoked by feeding, he said.

"The sharks are there, they're moving north this time of year and more people are entering the ocean as the water warms," he said. "What you have is a natural wildlife encounter that can happen with or without fishing on the beach."

Burgess said that as more tourists travel and visit beaches, plans to divide surfers, swimmers and anglers may need to be implemented.

"As the human population continues to grow — as it does every year — we're seeing more conflicts between user groups," he said. "If someone is fishing and putting in bait next to you as you're swimming, a conflict may be inevitable."

In 2017, 10 shark attacks were confirmed in South Carolina, which more than doubled from the previous year, according to an annual report released in February 2018.

Of those, eight occurred on Hilton Head Island and seven of those occurred in shallow water and involved children.