A photo of Donald Trump Jr. posing with a shark during a fishing trip in Florida went viral this week, and responses to the image have ranged from applause to severe criticism. Major animal rights groups and online commenters have been quick to condemn the encounter, but things are not as cut-and-dried as you might think.

Many of Trump's detractors have evoked the Endangered Species Act in their criticism of his actions.

"Do you freaking know that sharks are an endangered species?" wrote one Instagram commenter.

"You're a disgusting human being, this is illegal," added another.

Among the world's 500-plus shark species, some are indeed considered endangered (like hammerheads and whale sharks*), but blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus) like this one are not. The animal was caught and subsequently released at Palm Beach, and Trump Jr. – who has also taken heat for trophy hunting in the past – did nothing illegal by landing it.** However, that doesn't mean the encounter was well handled.

In this particular case, Trump Jr. should have forgone the posed family photo, which only prolonged the shark's time on the sand. Instead, a quick snap during the release would have been a better option. In fact, Florida Fish and Wildlife explicitly states this in their responsible handling guidelines:

"It is okay to take a picture of a fish while it's in the process of being released," they write. "But a fish should not be held out of the water for long periods just for the purpose of taking a picture."

In footage from Trump Jr.'s fishing trip, we can clearly see that the shark was out of the water for several minutes after it was ready to be returned to the ocean:

Blacktips are certainly hardier than some of their kin – contrary to PETA's widely shared response to catch-and-release fishing, some species can tolerate stress better than others – but all sharks need water to breathe. Time on the beach is tough on these animals in other ways, too. On land, their cartilaginous skeletons aren't equipped to handle the weight of their organs, and stress hormones that build up in the muscles have been known to increase the risk of death post-release. So even when we're talking about a hardy shark, anything that can be done to speed up the release process is considered best practice.

In Trump's defence, some commenters have pointed out that researchers often pull sharks out of the water for tagging or workup (a quick checkup that typically involves a series of measurements). There's a crucial difference here, however. Scientists put safeguards in place to ensure their study subjects don't suffer harm: their gear is designed to minimise stress on the animal, and in many cases, a tube is placed in the mouth to keep oxygenated water flowing over the gills.

That said, landing a shark is not wrong in and of itself, and we've certainly come across many conservation-minded and responsible anglers. What matters more is how the situation is approached. 

You'll notice that Trump Jr. isn't doing much to hold the shark in place – and that's actually concerning. Sharks that are in good shape tend to thrash around, which is why tagging teams must carefully restrain them. After a lengthy battle on the line, this blacktip showed signs of exhaustion – all the more reason to get it into the water as quickly as possible.

When it comes to the treatment of sharks and other wildlife, we've seen far worse from non-celebrities, but the encounter does bring to mind a pertinent question: should we hold celebrities and high-profile public figures to a higher standard?

It's a debate that goes far beyond Trump Jr. We saw similar controversy arise last year after New York governor Andrew Cuomo caught a large thresher shark, and in 2010, when Sarah Palin's notorious caribou hunt took place despite a census revealing a concerning decline in the Alaskan herds. Many scientists recognise that indiscriminately denouncing the hunting and fishing communities does nothing for conservation, but we can also argue that it's critical for high-profile influencers to encourage sustainable, responsible practices.

And these same concerns apply to other interactions with wildlife, too. Film star Zac Efron ignored criticism from scientists and conservation NGOs in 2015 after he posted a clip of himself riding tiger sharks.

The celebrity was led on the dive by YouTuber and freediver Ocean Ramsey, who has won her own share of shark-riding (and swimming) internet fameAt a time when these apex predators are just beginning to shrug off their negative reputation, Efron's encounter drew criticism for encouraging the kind of behaviour that could have negative consequences for both humans and sharks. 

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*These sharks are listed as "globally endangered" by the IUCN Red List, which is different from the US Endangered Species Act. As it stands, the scalloped hammerhead is the only shark protected by the ESA.

**While fishing regulations protect about 20 vulnerable shark species, blacktips are considered a rare success story in fishery management. It is for this reason that they are legal to land in Florida under science-based commercial and recreational fishing limits. 


Top header image: Alan/Flickr