A Maine beauty pageant contestant who has drawn criticism for her shark-tagging hobby defended herself Friday, saying the activity is useful for research and suggesting the media attention is evidence of continuing double standards for women.

But one Maine-based shark expert echoed concerns that tagging sharks on the beach could harm the animals. And the federal agency that sponsors the tagging program advises participating anglers to “avoid dragging the fish on dry sand or on a boat deck” and to take special care handling sharks, which, despite their ferocious reputation, are actually quite sensitive to injuries.

Marisa Butler, a 21-year-old from Standish, has been the target of criticism in some national media reports, including one by ABC News, for her hobby of catching sharks with a rod and reel and then affixing research tags to them while they are on the beach. A former Miss Maine National Sweetheart and first runner-up in the 2014 Miss Maine competition, a bikini-clad Butler can be seen in several photos posing with sizable sharks that she caught in Cape Cod and Florida with her boyfriend, avid shark fisherman Elliot Sudal.

A newspaper in the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail, first posted pictures of Butler’s unusual hobby last week. After some shark conservationists began criticizing the practice on social media and other news sites, ABC News ran a story Thursday morning featuring two conservationists who questioned Butler’s methods, saying they believed she was doing it for publicity and that she was not handling the sharks correctly.

HELPING A RESEARCH EFFORT

Butler, meanwhile, hopes the photos and the tagging – part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program to document the life history of Atlantic sharks – will spread awareness about sharks. Many species have experienced precipitous population declines.

“As far as why I am doing this, NOAA does not have a lot of information about the brown sharks off of Nantucket and are looking for more information,” Butler wrote in an email to the Portland Press Herald in response to questions. “Part of gathering that information is partnering with recreational anglers like myself. We catch the sharks, tag them, get measurements and note their gender, then release them back.”

The tagging is part of a long-running NOAA program in which recreational anglers have helped gather information on more than 250,000 sharks since 1962. NOAA supplies numbered tags to both recreational anglers and commercial fishermen that are typically inserted through or near the shark’s first dorsal fin. Anglers then return an accompanying card to NOAA with the date and location of the catch as well as the size and sex of the shark.

“Assisted by volunteers, the NOAA Fisheries Cooperative Shark Tagging Program provides vital information to scientists on stock identity, movements and migration, abundance, age and growth, mortality and behavior of sharks,” NOAA said in a statement. “Tagging programs for sharks and other aquatic species, such as sea turtles, are an important part of scientific research at NOAA Fisheries.”

A NOAA spokeswoman declined to comment on the debate involving Butler, saying the agency does not comment on specific individuals involved in the tagging program. But NOAA did provide a copy of the guidelines given to anglers urging them to “minimize physical handling” of sharks.

“If possible, leave the fish in the water and use a de-hooker to retrieve the hook or cut the leader,” the guidelines say. “Avoid dragging the fish on dry sand or on a boat deck. Treat the fish as gently as possible; do not sit on them or hold their mouths open for pictures and do not grip the shark over the gills as they are easily damaged. Sharks do not have bones to protect their internal organs the way we do; the larger the fish, the more prone it is to internal injury.”

SOME EXPRESS CONCERNS

Numerous pictures of Butler that ran on the ABC segment show her with sharks on the beach and at least one shows her posing beside a shark and holding its mouth open.

Butler said the photos can be misleading.

“We do not drag them on dry sand (it is still in the surf), and keep them in the surf for less than a minute and a half to get an accurate measurement, remove the hook and place the tag,” she said in an email. She noted that you need to hold the nose to remove the hook, but added, “I will no longer be taking pictures in that manner.”

University of New England professor James Sulikowski, who researches sharks, said NOAA’s angler tagging program has yielded useful information for researchers. He expressed concerns, however, about what happens to many of the sharks that are tagged on the beach by casual fishermen rather than on a boat by researchers.

“You have to have the best methods to ensure the survival of what you are tagging because, if you don’t, all of that effort is going to waste,” said Sulikowski, a professor of marine science at UNE. “The NOAA tagging program is great and should continue. But what is being done along the beaches with sharks is what we need to look at in more detail to determine whether it is really worth the risk (to sharks).”

Not only are sharks susceptible to internal injuries, they require flowing water across their gills to survive. Sulikowski and his research teams, for instance, catch sharks at sea and quickly tag them on a boat equipped with a machine that pumps water across the shark’s gills.

Sulikowski said that while Butler is being singled out in the current debate, the reality is many people fish for sharks from beaches along the Atlantic coastline and along the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA estimated that recreational fishermen caught more than 342,000 small and large sharks along Atlantic coastline states between 2008 and 2013. While the number of large sharks harvested by recreational fishermen fell dramatically in Atlantic states during that time, the harvest of smaller sharks increased.

And it is unclear, without more research, what the mortality rate is for sharks that are caught and released. While participants likely have the best intentions, Sulikowski said, “We don’t know how many of those tagged sharks are surviving even though they swim away.”

In her email, Butler pointed out that she and Sudal have recaught sharks that had been tagged. While acknowledging she has not “done everything perfectly,” she questioned why her participation in an activity that can benefit researchers has become a news story.

“I think it’s sad that it is simply news because I also happen to enjoy pageants,” Butler wrote. “The reason I think it’s sad is that in today’s society it is still news if a girl is both girly and can hang with the boys. This shouldn’t be news, this should be status quo.”