New York governor Andrew Cuomo is fond of posting photos of family fishing jaunts on social media – but one particular snapshot attracted a hefty dose of negative attention this week. 

After a photo of Cuomo posing with a dead thresher shark began circulating on Twitter, the governor faced allegations of poaching, calls for his resignation and even death threats.

The common thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) is listed as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List, but there was nothing illegal about Cuomo's catch. In fact, wildlife authorities recently found that there were insufficient grounds to have these long-tailed sharks protected under the US Endangered Species Act. 

"This is an edible game fish that is indigenous to New York waters and catching them is allowable under both state and federal regulations," Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi said in a statement. At the time of posting, Cuomo's team had not responded to requests for comment on whether the fish was in fact consumed. 

According to New York law, thresher sharks may be taken at a rate of one per vessel if they exceed 54 inches (137cm) in length, and based on Cuomo's photos, this stipulation seems to have been met. 

A size minimum limits the negative impact of sport fishing on baby sharks, which is important in a species that takes up to nine years to reach maturity. Still, as we've discussed in detail here and here, allowing exceptionally large sharks to be fished can result in pregnant females being inadvertently targeted. 

Cuomo's catch may have been legal, but there are other considerations at play here, too. Releasing the animal would have been the right course of action; just this month, in fact, we saw a team of sport fishermen forgo a world record to release a thresher alive. At a time when these apex predators are just beginning to shrug off their negative Jaws-inspired reputation, high-profile public figures could be leading the way to more sustainable fishing practices.

No matter what side of this heated debate you find yourself on, it's important to note that most shark scientists see members of the fishing community as allies, not opponents, in shark conservation. And attacking fishermen on social media certainly does nothing to improve shark protections. For ways to make a real impact, check out the various links at the bottom of this post.  


Top header image: Klaus Stiefel/Flickr