We've seen shark rodeos and whale-shark wakeboarding, but this week has brought us something new: waltzes with sharks. 

#sharks #landbasedsharkfishing #ocsharkhunter

A video posted by Zane Rutt (@zanerutt) on Aug 8, 2016 at 6:22pm PDT


Sport fisherman Zane Rutt regularly posts landfishing videos on social media, but his latest share has caused an uproar online – and it's pretty easy to see why. After hooking a sand tiger (aka ragged-tooth) shark (Carcharias taurus) off the coast of Maryland, Rutt took to the water with his catch while holding it like a loaded shotgun. 

Rutt's behaviour left many viewers with angry questions. What was he doing? Was the shark alive? Is this common practice? And, most importantly, is this legal? 

According to Rutt, the shark was alive when the video was taken, and it eventually swam off without much trouble. "I had to get into the water with it to make sure it was OK," he told us. "I put the shark in tonic immobility to calm it down before I handled it." 

"Tonic immobility" is a trance-like state that can be induced in some sharks by flipping them onto their backs. Essentially, it's the shark's last-ditch escape strategy when neither fight nor flight has worked. Some researchers and aquarium veterinarians do use this tactic to safely study the animals, but performing the stunt without good reason or proper training is unnecessary – and it can also amount to wildlife harassment

"Sand tigers are usually pretty docile but when we hook them on rod and reel, we bring them in very quickly so they're not exhausted. Some you can handle with ease, others I wouldn't try it with," says Rutt. 

In this case, the shark certainly appears extremely weak – and it's likely in bad shape. "The shark must have been angled to complete exhaustion to be able to do that," University of Miami shark biologist Dr Neil Hammerschlag told us after watching the clip. 

Maryland angler and shark fisherman Mark Sampson, a respected conservationist who supports sustainable fishing practices, agrees. "[He] likely stressed it out more by mishandling it on the beach before taking it out for his childish waltz in the waves."

This echoes a comment that Rutt himself made on his Instagram page: "The shark was caught on rod and reel and was worn out," he wrote. (Protip: If your goal is to revive a tired fish, holding its gills above water is probably not the best strategy.)

Some media platforms have reported this as a rescue attempt, but while Rutt's intentions were not to kill the animal, he's certainly not doing it any favours. Unfortunately, the stunt here was not an isolated incident:

A photo posted by Zane Rutt (@zanerutt) on Jul 5, 2016 at 3:56pm PDT


The biggest question, however, is whether Rutt's actions were legal. And you might be surprised to find out that the answer is yes. 

Sand tigers are a prohibited species in Maryland, but when it comes to releasing a catch, regulations enter a bit of a grey area. By Maryland state law, you cannot capture or kill a prohibited shark, and if you've caught one by accident, you must release it immediately. "But we don't have specific rules on how to release a shark," clarifies Sarah Wideman, fisheries director from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "This person has not taken it into their possession as it's still in the water, and they appear to be releasing the shark. So there is no violation that I can see." 

Legal or not, behaviour like this gives fishermen a bad reputation – and if there's one point we'd like to drive home here, it's that there are conservation-minded anglers out there. Earlier this month, for example, we saw a group forgo a world record in order to safely release a large thresher shark alive and well.  

It's easy to be angered by Rutt's video, and responses have taken on a familiar tone on social media. "I hope one day they eat you alive," wrote one commenter. While we don't condone Rutt's actions, it's important to note that lashing out at one sport fisherman isn't going to do much for wildlife conservation (as was the case during the Kendall Jones debate).    

There are a number of better ways to help sharks: you can donate to shark research, adopt a shark, or participate in shark spotting, ocean cleanup and other shark-related citizen-science projects. You can also engage in the consultation process for new laws and policies.

The majority of shark scientists agree that working with the fishing community is our best chance to make a positive impact for sharks and rays. Let's not allow a few irresponsible individuals to undermine that collaboration. 


Top header image: Saspotato, Flickr