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Photos have emerged of sharks branded with personal logos, like cattle. This sand tiger shark swims in the Great Ocean Tank at the South Carolina Aquarium. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The branding on the sharks is ghoulishly distinct — a figure that could be a J or an F, shaped like a fishing hook, enclosed in a circle beneath the dorsal fin.

It's as large as the palm of an adult's hand.

S.C. Department of Natural Resources officers are investigating the source of two photos of branded sharks that a staffer posted Wednesday on the Boat Life of Charleston Facebook page, trying to find out where the brands came from.

You can brand cattle, but you can't brand sharks.

"It's a violation of at least one state law and potentially federal regulations," said Mel Bell, DNR fisheries management director. "I've never seen anything like that in my life."

From the photos, the brand appears to have been put on with a propane torch or "freeze branded" with dry ice, according to horrified anglers who responded to the post.

Mike Popovich of the Charleston-based Coastal Shark Tagging Initiative team called it distasteful.

"I don't see the purpose," he said.

Shark anglers who participate in the federal Apex Predator Program get tags for the sharks they catch, then are notified when a shark they catch is caught again. He also said he had never heard of branding the animals before.

Logo branding has been used by some individuals and practices for centuries, considered a mark of identification or ownership. Cattle branding is maybe the widest recognized form of it. Personal branding, or self-scarification, is a fringe pursuit today.

Sharks are a popular catch among some anglers and charter groups because of their fearsome appearance and fighting nature. At least 39 of the world’s 400-plus shark species are found off South Carolina. 

Most species aren't federally protected, but they generally are considered overfished worldwide, largely because of an illegal but lucrative trade in shark fins. The fins are thought to be an aphrodisiac in some cultures.

Sharks aren't everybody's favorite fish. But the presence of apex predators like them has been shown to be critical to keeping ecosystems healthy for other fish. Meanwhile, sharks themselves have become an invaluable resource for a growing variety of medicines.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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