Untamed Lowcountry

‘It’s just cruel’: Shark fishing on Hilton Head beaches is illegal. Why do we keep seeing it?

Shannon Sweeney was enjoying an evening Hilton Head beach walk with her family this week when she saw something startling — a dead shark lying in the sand just behind a man and a woman fishing in the surf.

Confused, one of her family members asked the woman what happened to the small shark on Fish Haul Creek Beach.

“She said the shark was going to eat whatever they were fishing for, so they killed it,” she said. “They just left it there to suffocate and die. Who would do that? Who would kill a creature for no reason? It’s just cruel.”

Sweeney reported the incident to Palmetto Ocean Conservancy CEO Michelle Meissen, who said illegal shark fishing on Hilton Head Island is a recurring issue — as a letter to the editor pointed out earlier this month. Meissen, whose organization works to protect local marine life, said the issue that could be greatly reduced if more people were aware of the local and state fishing laws, and if those laws were enforced more often.

“I see people fishing for sharks so often on Hilton Head beaches, I had no idea it was illegal,” Sweeney said. “How would people know it was illegal since there aren’t any signs?”

The day after Meissen heard about the Fish Haul Creek incident, she went to the north end beach to see the problem for herself. It didn’t take long.

“I saw two dead sharks — clearly killed by fishing — just laying there on the beach,” she said. “These sharks were left to die after being caught. What would people do if they saw sea turtles being killed like this?”

The laws

“There is so much confusion between state and local laws about fishing on the beach,” Meissen explained. “And even if people know (shark fishing on the beach) is illegal, they don’t know who to report it to.”

Sweeney reported the illegal shark-fishing incident to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources after she wrote about it on social media. However, state officials don’t typically enforce local laws, according to SCDNR spokesperson David Lucas.

Hilton Head municipal code —laws to be enforced by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office — prohibits anyone baiting or fishing for sharks from the beach, while state law does not.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office has not issued any tickets for illegal fishing on Hilton Head Island beaches since 2015, according to information obtained by the Island Packet through a Freedom of Information Act request. Deputies have issued only one violation for illegal beach fishing during those years.

“So why have laws if you aren’t going to enforce them?” Meissen asked.

According to Lucas, SCDNR officers in Beaufort County “often do checks of shore-based anglers” in different places throughout the county, including Hilton Head beaches. During those checks, officers are looking for things like fishing licenses and limit requirements.

Lucas said they would write tickets for violations of state game and fish laws/ regulations, but added that “very often, that might be a warning ticket, depending on the circumstances.”

Meissen said the lack of enforcement, and increasing prevalence of illegal shark fishing, represents a larger problem on Hilton Head.

“If we, as people of the community, don’t enforce the laws of the town we adore, we’ll be left with picking up the pieces from the errors of others,” Meissen said. “We’re voted a top tourist location because of our ecology.”

Does fishing attract sharks?

Expert opinions vary about whether fishing from the beach attracts sharks.

George Burgess, who studied shark attacks for decades at the University Of Florida’s International Shark Attack File, told the Island Packet last year “there is no doubt that fishing on the beach attracts sharks.”

“Fishing from the beach or from piers involves putting bait in the water, and bait by definition is attractive,” Burgess previously told the Island Packet. “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.”

Bryan Frazier, SCDNR shark biologist, said the there is no data to prove this.

“Anglers are not attracting sharks to the area by fishing, they are fishing for sharks that naturally feed in these areas,” he said.

Either way, shark fishing from the beach can be dangerous.

“Anglers have been bitten while handling captured sharks, and beach swimmers may encounter fishing lines if they swim too close to fishermen,” Frazier said.

‘People fear what they don’t know’

As apex predators, sharks play a vital role in Hilton Head’s ecosystem, but Meissen said they aren’t protected like other species because people fear them.

“People fear what they don’t know,” Meissen said.

Though sharks are abundant in Lowcountry waters, attacks are exceedingly rare.

The number of shark attacks in South Carolina during 2017 doubled from the previous year, according to an annual report released in February 2018 by the International Shark Attack File. There were 10 confirmed shark attacks in South Carolina. Of those, eight were on Hilton Head Island. Seven of the Hilton Head incidents occurred in shallow water and involved children.

Experts have stressed that the increased numbers of shark attacks are no reason to panic because they think more people are reporting the attacks than in previous years. Reports go to the International Shark Attack File.

Last summer, a shark bit a 10-year-old’s right forearm while he and his older brother were splashing in waist-deep water on Hilton Head. There hasn’t been a shark attack reported on the island since.

Beach fishing laws to know

According to Hilton Head Municipal Code:

  • It’s illegal to bait or fish for sharks from the beach, or anywhere 400 yards from the beach.
  • Fishing in designated swimming areas on the beaches is banned from April through September, from sunrise to sunset.
  • Both of these violations could result in a $500 fine.
  • State laws:

    • A recreational saltwater fishing license is required for any residents or visitors to surf fish.

    • While no state laws ban shark fishing, anglers are required to follow the size and catch regulations listed here when harvesting sharks.

    • Sharks can be caught only using a rod and reel or handline and hooked by their mouths, tails and fins.

    • The following species are prohibited for recreational fishermen to catch due to their population sizes: Atlantic angel, basking, bignose, dusky, galapagos, longfin Mako, narrowtooth, night, Caribbean reef, sandbar, sevengill, Caribbean sharpnose, Silky, bigeye sixgill, sixgill, smalltail, bigeye thresher, bigeye sand tiger, sand tiger, whale and white sharks.

    • It’s illegal to kill blacknose, blacktip, blue, bull, finetooth, lemon, nurse, porbeagle, spinner, thresher, tiger and oceanic whitetip sharks more than one per day (54-inch limit).

    • Anglers can catch and kill only one shark per day of Atlantic sharpnose and bonnethead species.

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    Mandy Matney is an award-winning journalist and self-proclaimed shark enthusiast from Kansas. She worked for newspapers in Missouri and Illinois before she realized Midwestern winters are horrible, then moved to Hilton Head in 2016. She is the breaking news editor at the Island Packet.