Shark Handling and Release

By all appearances, sharks look hardy and it would be easy to assume that they can sustain long “soak times,” rough handling, or extensive exposure and still survive when returned to the sea. But sharks have a few biological weaknesses that make them susceptible to stress and injury, which can reduce their chances at post-release survival.

Most sharks must swim in order to breathe effectively, so long soak times in the water while attached to a hook could hinder their breathing. This causes stress, and in more extreme cases, suffocation. Unlike other fish, these animals do not have a hard skeleton of bone to protect their internal organs. When out of water, the weight of gravity can tear their connective tissue, resulting in crushed or damaged organs. This same tissue holds the spinal cord in place, and for this reason, animals handled from the head or tail can suffer damage as a result. A shark’s head also holds a number of sensitive and fragile organs used to detect prey, and if handling damages these, then the shark—once released—could be unable to locate prey and starve.

Armed with these facts about shark biology, we can ensure that our handling techniques are minimizing further injury to the animal. Of course, crew safety is paramount at all times, so employ these best practices only when they can be done safely and securely.

For larger sharks that are hooked or entangled, the use of long-handled line cutters and dehookers while the animal remains in the water is recommended. If a smaller hooked shark is safe to bring aboard, do so carefully. As with sea turtles and seabirds, dehookers, bolt, and line cutters can all be used to remove a hook, disentangle an animal or cut a leader if the hook is too deeply embedded. See the following galleries about general dos and don’ts when handling the animal on deck.

Shark Anatomy