Photograph by Nick Cammett, Diamond Images/Getty
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Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp was bitten by a nurse shark while harvesting spiny lobsters in the Florida Keys.

Photograph by Nick Cammett, Diamond Images/Getty

Shark Bites Football Star During Lobster Hunt Frenzy

Linebacker Warren Sapp was among this year's participants in the controversial, two-day "mini-season" for spiny lobster.

During a mad rush to harvest spiny lobsters in the Florida Keys this week, an NFL legend was bitten by a shark. Another recreational fisher died. The annual two-day season has a reputation for chaos and injuries, with tens of thousands taking part.

Former NFL hall of fame player Warren Sapp, who had played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, received a minor injury to his arm Wednesday while hunting for lobster in the Keys. According to local media, Sapp was bitten by a small shark—thought to be a nurse shark—that was apparently going for the same lobster he was. The shark was roughly four feet long, Sapp estimated.

The former pro athlete may need stitches but the injury wasn't serious. On Twitter, Sapp quipped, “Shark got a little chuck of Me. We got Dinner! #Winning.”

Also this week, 60-year-old diver William Simko died looking for lobsters in the Keys, after he became distressed in about 12 feet (four meters) of water.

Florida's recreational "mini season" for spiny lobsters occurs on the final Wednesday and Thursday of July each year. On August 1, the commercial season for the crustaceans begins. During the mini-season, participants must follow catch limits.

Still, "it's the one time of the year when lobster fishers can rock and roll," says George Burgess, a shark expert at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "It's kind of a free-for-all."

Sustainable Hunt?

Many of those who participate in the hunt scout out areas in the Keys before the season begins, so they can hone in on specific spots. Overall, the take of the lobsters is overseen by fisheries scientists, who "seem to be doing a decent job in maintaining populations at a sustainable level," says Burgess.

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A nurse shark rests on the seafloor off the coast of Key West.

Still, a study by North Carolina State University found a 95 percent decrease in lobster density after the two-day hunt.

The intense energy that surrounds the short recreational season and the rush to find areas that aren't picked over has also led to a number of injuries over the years, including some deaths. Five people died in 2006.

Competition over fishing spots has even resulted in fishermen shooting each other with spear guns and flares. As a result of these issues, petitions have been launched to end the season. (Learn about sustainable lobster hunting in Honduras.)

Risky Game

The anglers typically try to grab the lobsters with a net, after first prodding the crustaceans from their hiding places with a metal pole, called a "tickle stick." But all this poking in crevices can get them into trouble.

"If you stick your hand in there you might come out with a moray eel on it, and that's no fun at all," Burgess warns.

Nurse sharks also like to hang out along the bottom and in crannies. "Sometimes people aggravate them by intruding into their personal space," Burgess warns.

That can lead to bites.

Fishermen are also sometimes bitten when they carry bait or a catch in their hands. The best thing to do is to get the catch up to the surface as quickly as possible, says Burgess. Inflatable devices can make this easier.

Florida's spiny lobsters have long antenna and are covered with spines. Although they aren't as well known as the smoother Maine lobsters, they are still highly prized as delicacies.

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