A hammerhead shark was caught on Saturday and given to the George Town fish market to be sold for its meat.
Scalloped hammerhead sharks are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to population declines.
Colin Wilson captained the 25-foot boat that participated in a swordfish tournament over the weekend when one of his four lines snagged a nearly 250-pound scalloped hammerhead shark.
“At the time, we thought it was a massive swordfish,” Mr. Wilson said. “By no means did we go, ‘let’s go get a hammerhead and hack it up’.”
When the fishermen brought the shark up, they found that the fish was lassoed with one hook hanging from its mouth and a second hook – what he calls a ‘gut hook’ – buried deep in its throat. They decided to ‘bonk’ the shark – essentially hitting the animal over the head to kill it quickly.
“As captain… we determined that it was deep hooked and it was going to die anyway,” Mr. Wilson said. “I’d be more against cutting loose a fish that’s going to die than selling it for people to eat.”
Mr. Wilson said that he dropped the fish off at the fish market and didn’t accept money for it.
On Sunday, activist and shark expert Guy Harvey heard about the caught shark and visited the fish market.
“I went to the beach on Sunday… and did a brief interview on camera with the fisherman who caught this hammerhead,” Mr. Harvey said. “While this species is severely overexploited, it is likely the fishermen had no idea of the current status regarding this or any sharks around the Cayman Islands.”
Mr. Harvey said the meat was sold for $5 per pound and none of the meat was wasted.
“I cautioned the gentleman that if any more sharks (let alone hammerheads) are caught then they should be released alive,” he said.
The Cayman Islands Department of the Environment released a statement saying that although several species of sharks are occasionally caught in Cayman, they are not considered to be a target species and fishermen do often take great care to avoid hooking these animals.
“Sharks that are accidentally caught are often sold for meat so as not to waste the animal; it is rare that a shark is killed just for the sake of it,” read the DoE statement.
Oliver Dubock from Marine Conservation International has been working with the DoE on shark research.
“The fishermen that caught the shark were targeting swordfish and accidentally hooked up with the animal,” he said. “It is not illegal to catch or sell shark here in Cayman, so even if the fishermen had intended to catch one it would not be investigated by DoE enforcement; however from a strictly research point of view, I would try to get as much data on the animal as possible for our project.”
Mr. Dubock has been focusing on the current shark and cetacean programme, a project that involves examining the local populations of sharks, whales and dolphins.
He recommends that if fishermen hook any animal they don’t intend to keep, they should try to remove the hook when possible, or at least cut the hook off leaving as little line trailing from the animal.
“I can appreciate people would be fearful of getting close to the mouth of a shark, but the main thing is to let the animal go, alive, with as little tackle attached as possible,” he said. “Sharks are occasionally killed for no other reason than fishermen believe they are dangerous and eat all their fish; in these cases the shark is often tossed back into the sea without being utilised.
This accidental catch has worried other animal conservationists and enthusiasts because the shark’s endangered status.
“Fins from the three large hammerhead species (great, scalloped and smooth hammerheads) are amongst the most highly priced in the international fin trade, spurring the severe over-exploitation of these sharks,” said Mahmood Shivji, professor of the Oceanographic Centre at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and director of the Save Our Seas Shark Centre. “Given their endangered status, prohibiting the commercial sale of hammerhead sharks caught in Cayman waters would be a terrific step towards conserving these evolutionarily unique species and establishing the Cayman Islands as a leader in Caribbean marine conservation efforts.”
Mr. Wilson said that if he could do it over, he would have made different decision regarding the animal’s release.
“Now, I would let the fish decide its fate,” he said. “But is it better to let a fish swim around with a hand-sized hook in his gut, or kill it?”