Shark-fishing contests raise controversy

Waters churn as advocates tussle over sport-fishing contests.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    A shark being weighed at the Star Island Yacht Club tournament in Montauk, N.Y., in June 2007.
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In the weeks before the Oak Bluffs (Mass.) Monster Shark Tournament kicks off each summer, the home of tournament organizer Steven James becomes crowded with T-shirts, other clothing, and promotional items emblazoned with the crest of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club and a rendering of a shark. The imagery illustrates a promise: For two days, the fishermen can brave the seas off Martha’s Vineyard (where the movie “Jaws” was filmed) and chase sharks.

It’s a notion that appeals to hundreds of recreational fishermen – who spend heavily on entry fees, gear, and boat fuel for a chance to catch the biggest shark in weekend contests – and crowds of spectators, who gather dockside to watch boats returning with champion fish.

But the events have also compelled animal-rights activists, led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), to campaign against shark tournaments. The groups say that the tournaments are cruel and are an additional threat in an era of worldwide shark population decline. “These events convey to the public the message that the value of these sharks is in their death,” says John Grandy, a senior vice president of HSUS.

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The campaign angers tournament organizers, who say that the criticism exaggerates the impact of the events on world shark populations. The debate has also emphasized that some of what scientists understand about sharks comes from sampling those caught in tournaments.

Since 2005, HSUS and local organizations have protested at large events such as the Ocean City (Maryland) Shark Tournament and the Star Island Yacht Club Shark Tournament in Montauk, N.Y. Their tactics have been both subtle and dramatic: They’ve asked tournament sponsors to end support of the events, and, last fall, HSUS reported allegations of illegal gambling at the Oak Bluffs contest to the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.

Fishpond USA, a fishing equipment manufacturer, joined HSUS in speaking out against the events. But HSUS did not attend the Oak Bluffs or Ocean City events this year. Dr. Grandy says that after years of campaigning, the group is leaving it up to the public to end the tournaments.

Other organizations continue to campaign against the tournaments, though. Beth Gallie of the Maine Animal Coalition, which has protested the Downeast Maine Shark Tournament in Saco, says: “We just don’t think it’s an enlightened event.”

Shark tournament organizers – mostly charter-boat captains and hobby fishermen – beg to differ. They consider themselves experts on the animals they’ve spent so much time pursuing. Mr. James serves on a federal advisory panel dedicated to management of sharks in US waters. He says he donates funds annually for the purchase of tags, used by government scientists to attach to sharks so their migration habits can be monitored.

“Animal rights groups want to make it look like we’re destroying the world’s oceans, [but] we’re the ones who have been the champions of conservation and are concerned about the fishery long-term,” he adds.

While acknowledging that sharks suffer enormous conservation challenges, fishermen note that the bulk of the pressure brought to bear on many of the approximately 400 known species comes from foreign commercial fleets. Last year, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas released a stock assessment of several sharks that live in the open ocean. It estimated the differing catch amounts of fishing nations and reported that the US landed 215 tons of shortfin mako in 2007, while Spain and Portugal combined landed more 3,000 tons.

“The US recreational and commercial fleets take between 4 and 5 percent of the total number of makos taken worldwide,” says James, who notes that the impact of his tournament on world mortality rates – 14 sharks were retained at the Oak Bluff tournament in July – is negligible.

But opponents say that many more sharks die after release because of injuries from hooks and gaffs used during capture.

Since the 1960s, scientists have learned quite a bit by studying the sharks caught at tournaments. They have assessed a number of species for size, sex, age, reproduction, and food consumption data. These opportunities provide scientists with data that would otherwise require expensive research cruises or studies to acquire.

“The list of information as yet unknown on sharks is too long to reproduce,” says Lisa Natanson, a federal biologist who has sampled animals at the Oak Bluffs event. “By opportunistically obtaining samples from shark tournaments, commercial and recreational fishermen, and strandings, scientists are able to [try to obtain] an accurate description of a species.”

While acknowledging the scientific benefits that can accrue from tournaments, Dr. Robert Hueter of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida nevertheless believes that the pressures on sharks are too great for tournaments to continue. “I’m not saying that we aren’t gaining useful data from this sort of sampling,” he says. “But scientists have been taking these sorts of samples at tournaments for nearly 50 years. It’s questionable that the research benefits gained at this point justify the cost to shark conservation.”

The opposite view is expressed by Dr. George Benz of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro: “As a scientist, I can say that shark sport-fishing tournaments continue to facilitate a good bit of robust science, and we can’t learn everything we need to learn about sharks by studying live animals.”

Catch and release tournaments have been suggested as alternatives to kill events, despite the contention that the animals often die after they’re released.

The Are You Man Enough? Shark Challenge in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., revised its rules so that competitors weren’t required to bring a shark to the dock; they could release it at sea. Tournament director Jack Donlon says that he plans to expand the format next year.

He hopes that this change, plus educating spectators and participants about sharks, will ease the controversy surrounding shark tournaments.

But protestors have vowed that as long as sharks are still being killed, they will continue to apply pressure to end these events.

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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