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Agency acts following investigation into handling of hammerhead on Sanibel

June 20, 2018
By TIFFANY REPECKI ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

A local man who received national attention for catching a 12-foot hammerhead shark last month on Sanibel has been advised on proper animal handling practices by at least one agency.

Elliot Sudal caught the male shark near Blind Pass on May 6. It was reported at the time that the hammerhead was "quickly tagged with research data, then released safely" in collaboration with the Apex Predators Program, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service - the NOAA division that oversees the program - were notified of the incident, with the FWC taking action following an investigation.

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"Hammerhead sharks are prohibited from harvest in Florida state waters," Melody Kilborn, spokeswoman for the FWC's Southwest Region Office, said. "This means that, when caught, they must be released immediately, free, alive and unharmed."

She reported that a thorough investigation was conducted into the incident.

"Mr. Sudal did not receive a fine or citation," Kilborn said. "However, he was educated on the FWC Shark-Smart fishing guidelines and Florida rules and regulations pertaining to shark fishing."

She added that no criminal charges were filed.

Sudal was given the information on May 24, closing the investigation.

"An FWC records search yielded no prior citations, warnings or investigative documents for Mr. Sudal," Kilborn said.

On May 18, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a statement on the incident to "correct several inaccuracies" in the media involving his "handling and tagging of sharks and sawfish."

The agency noted that it remains concerned with his handling practices.

"Mr. Sudal's tagging of an endangered smalltooth sawfish caught in Florida in April 2017 was investigated by NOAA and resulted in a compliance assistance letter from NOAA's Office of General Counsel informing him of the Endangered Species Act issues and the safe handling protocol for sawfish," the statement reads. "Smalltooth sawfish are related to sharks and were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2003."

"Best practices and guidelines for volunteers call for the immediate release of sharks," it noted. "Physical handling should be minimized, all species should be kept in the water while tagging and then released quickly. During tagging, sharks should not be dragged onto dry sand or boat decks for any reason."

Kate Brogan, spokeswoman for the NOAA division, confirmed that the agency is aware of the most recent incident with the hammerhead. She could not comment on any potential or ongoing investigation in relation to it.

"As with most investigative agencies, NOAA's long standing policy is not to comment on potential or ongoing investigations," Brogan said.

She explained that compliance assistance letters are "enforcement tools" used by the NOAA in a variety of circumstances.

"After considering the facts and circumstances of each case, the NOAA Office of General Counsel, Enforcement Section, determines what response is appropriate to promote compliance with the laws. The Enforcement Section has several enforcement tools available including seeking monetary penalties, issuing written warnings, or helping to educate the person," Brogan said. "A compliance assistance letter is a letter sent by the Enforcement Section or the Office of Law Enforcement seeking to educate the person on the applicable rules and regulations. Should the person commit the same violation again, the compliance assistance letter could serve as a basis for an increased response, such as monetary penalties."

She also emphasized that Sudal has no official ties to the division.

"Mr. Sudal is not and has never been an employee of NOAA Fisheries, nor is he formally affiliated with any of the agency's programs," she said. "He practices citizen science as a volunteer and provides the agency with some of his data."

Sudal could not be reached for comment.

Kilborn recommended that the public view FWC's Shark Smart handling guidelines online for tips on how to ensure that sharks are released in such a manner to increase their chances for survival at

"We definitely encourage anyone who suspects a fish or wildlife violation to give us a call," she said.

The Wildlife Alert Hotline can be reached at 888-404-FWCC (3922).



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