Anna Maria resident Joan Dickinson said she’s concerned about sharks when she takes her daily swim into Tampa Bay waters off the city’s north end, just about 100 yards north of the Rod & Reel Pier.
Dickinson said she really became worried about the dangers from sharks when she saw a picture of an 800-pound bull shark caught at the Rod & Reel Pier in the June 1 edition of The Islander.
Shark fishing and the accompanying chum used by anglers to attract sharks to the Rod & Reel Pier and occasionally to the Anna Maria City Pier causes her to worry, and not just for herself.
Young children often play in the waters near her waterfront house, and parents have no idea sharks may be in the water, she said.
Chumming is the practice of dumping large pieces of cut fish and fish blood into the water.
While Dickinson said she’s never seen a shark near her home, she believes chumming is “an accident waiting to happen.”
She recently wrote a letter to the city asking what could be done to “discourage shark fishing from our piers. I don’t want sharks lured in by the bloody chum these fishermen use.”
Dickinson asked what the city’s liability would be in a shark attack, “knowing that this practice has been encouraged.”
Neighbors Greg and Ann Loomis and Freida Williams also sent e-mail letters to the city supporting Dickinson.
“We are so very surprised an issue of such obvious danger would necessitate a debate within our public forum,” wrote Greg Loomis, a retired medical doctor.
Loomis said the pier operators should have “neighborly good faith” and halt or discontinue shark fishing, while Dickinson suggested posting “No Shark Fishing” signs at the Rod & Reel Pier. Alternately, she asked the piers to discourage or prohibit chumming.
Dr. Bob Hueter, director of the Mote Marine Center for Shark Research, said chumming does not cause sharks to start a feeding frenzy or attack at random.
“There’s no evidence that chumming leads to shark attacks on people,” he said. “It just attracts them to a particular area, but sharks are already everywhere in Florida waters.”
However, Hueter said he recommends that Florida beach communities warn swimmers not to get in the water when large numbers of anglers are present.
“Sharks are attracted to bait, even if it’s not chum,” he said.
Most chumming is done at night and he would only be concerned about chumming from the Rod & Reel Pier if it were a popular swimming location.
Gary Morris, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said, “Shark fishing and chumming for sharks are not illegal.” Saltwater fishing, including shark fishing, is controlled by the state, not the municipalities, he added. A pier can’t control what’s caught and sharks will bite just about any bait.
“What if you went fishing for snook and caught a shark?” he asked.
John Fara, who has been fishing waters around Anna Maria since 1963, said he’s never heard of a shark attack near either pier. Shark fishing has been around since he moved to the Island, he said, and sharks have always been caught from the Rod & Reel Pier.
“Sharks live in saltwater. If you want to avoid them, don’t get in the water,” he said.
Fara noted that not all shark fishing is done with chum. In fact, many sharks are caught when fishing for something else.
Sharks are strange fish, said Carli Segelson of the FWC research institute in St. Petersburg. They often attack without any reason and Florida’s coastline abounds with sharks.
“If you go in the water, there’s probably a shark somewhere within a mile or two. Anyone entering the sea in Florida is in shark territory,” she said.
Regarding liability, Morris said the general rule is that swimmers assume a risk when they enter the water.
If unusually large numbers of sharks have been noted in a particular area near shore, the FWC and local authorities would post signs warning swimmers that sharks have been observed in the area, he said.
If a government were to be liable for any shark attack in the waters along its beaches, every city and county in Florida would seek to ban swimming from its shores, Morris indicated.
Hueter said shark fishing has been ongoing in Florida since the first people settled along coastal areas. And large sharks abound in Florida waters, he added.
Fara remembered the story of a record-setting hammerhead shark caught in 1971 by Frank Cavendish, who then owned the Rod & Reel Pier.
Cavendish caught the hammerhead shark from the pier in December 1971, according to a photo of the catch that hangs in the pier restaurant. The hammerhead was 17 feet long and weighed 1,386 pounds, according to a news account of the catch.
“At that time, a lot of people thought it was a record for a hammerhead shark,” Fara recalled.
As an experienced fisherman, Fara said hammerhead sharks come around the tip of Bean Point to feed off tarpon in the area, and they’ve been doing it for years.
He’s seen hammerhead sharks close to the AMI shore off the Gulf of Mexico, but never near the shore by the piers.
“If anyone is going to get bitten by a shark, it’s going to be along the beach when the tarpon are schooling,” Fara predicted.
Rod & Reel Pier manager Dave Cochran said shark fishing from the pier is not as common as some people think. “And they’re not throwing buckets of chum in the water,” he added.
Cochran said he did not want to offend neighbors of the pier, but shark fishing at the pier has been going on for a “long time” and it’s not illegal to catch a shark.
Dickinson said her intent is to discourage anglers from chumming or fishing for sharks at the Rod & Reel Pier.
But Fara said many sharks are caught by accident, even around the Rod & Reel Pier or from a boat in Anna Maria waters.
“You can’t tell the shark not to bite because it’s illegal,” he observed.
Selby said he would ask the Florida League of Cities’ legal department for an opinion on the city’s liability from shark fishing and chumming at any pier within the city limits. The FLC carries the city’s liability insurance.
Shark attack liability
In the only known case in Florida where a swimmer sued a municipality for a shark attack, the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in the 1975 case that the city of St. Petersburg was not liable for injuries to a swimmer bitten by a shark, according to the website nexis.com.
The court said the swimmer assumed a danger from marine life when he entered the water, and the city had “no duty to anticipate the presence of, or guard the injured swimmer, an invitee, against harm from sharks that the city did not harbor where the city had no knowledge of prior shark attacks in the area,” the website said.
Since 1896, there have been 14 deaths recorded in Florida from shark attacks, the website said.
An average of four shark attacks in Florida have been reported annually since record keeping of shark attacks began in 1896, the website said.