Please be warned: This video is not for sensitive viewers.
When the crew aboard sport-fishing boat Phoenix returned from a chartered expedition in Florida earlier this week, they had a very big fish in tow. Dragging behind the boat was a 13.6-foot (4.1-metre), 835 lb (379 kg) great hammerhead shark. Little did they know, the large female was pregnant, carrying an astounding 34 pups.
The footage was captured by onlooker Jeff Bratcher, who was vacationing in the city of Destin, where the shark was brought to shore.
"We would have released it, but the shark died during the long battle," the Phoenix team said in a Facebook post. It's an unfortunate end for such a beautiful fish, and sadly, not entirely surprising. These endangered sharks (Sphyrna mokarran) are extremely sensitive and prone to this kind of stress-related death.
"They're like the Ferraris of the ocean," explains Dr Austin Gallagher, who has done extensive work on reducing fishing stress in sharks. "They're very fast swimmers, so it makes sense that they expend a lot of energy when they're on a line." Unfortunately, it's that power that makes them ideal opponents in the eyes of many fisherman.
This story is tough to swallow, but it's also important as it highlights some of the challenges facing not only these animals, but also the scientists, conservationists and politicians trying to save them.
Like many sharks, great hammerheads are migratory, which makes protecting them very complicated, requiring effective cooperation across borders. Florida state law already prohibits landing hammerheads and mandates that any that die on the line be returned to the sea, but these protections don't apply in federal waters where this particular shark was reportedly caught. For a shark in this region, a mere nine mile (14.5km) swim could mean the difference between safe and sorry.
Moreover, pregnant female sharks are particularly vulnerable to pressure from sport fishing, as they're often the biggest, most prized catches.
However, experts agree that vilifying sport fishing is not the answer to this problem, as fishermen can be powerful allies in many conservation efforts. But since only a small percentage of shark pups actually make it to adulthood, every catch is costly for endangered species.
"Fish species with healthy populations can withstand the impact of trophy fishing," writes shark biologist David Shiffman. "But for species with already reduced populations, selectively removing the largest individuals can impede population recovery or even contribute to decline."
"Hammerhead sharks, specifically great hammerheads, are ghosts of the ocean," adds Gallagher. "They are rarely seen these days, and when you do [see them], it's a fantastic, memorable and often shocking experience."
It's certainly a shame to lose one as gorgeous as this.
Top header image: BlueRidgeKitties/Flickr