The Controversy of Montauk’s No-Kill, Satellite Tag Shark Fishing Tournament

by Owen James Burke

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Shark tournament poster by April Gornik (Photo: Montauk Marine Basin)

Montauk, New York’s new no-kill shark tournament, The Shark’s Eye All-Release Tournament and Festival, is in its second year. The “Shark’s Eye” may be thriving, but it’s receiving backlash from some local fishermen who are afraid that the days of their tradition could be numbered.

Founded and organized largely by environmental group Concerned Citizens of Montauk and renowned marine artist and conservationist Guy Harvey, (whose Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, put up for the $10,000 cash prize) the Shark’s Eye tournament is a progressive intersection between sportfishing, environmental research and wildlife conservation: it’s catch-and-release only, six of the sharks are named and fitted with satellite tags so they can be followed for research (others are fitted with regular tags), and tackle is heavily regulated to protect the sharks from excessive harm (in-line circle hooks and heavy gear, so sharks are swiftly brought to the boat and don’t tire to death during the fight).

But some fishermen aren’t so happy–namely, the participants in other tournaments along the northeast coast of the United States, where the glorified killing of the sharks is still very much engrained within the sport.

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A news clip from Frank Mundus’ World Record Catch in 1986. 

For one, satellite-tagging the sharks and taking photos from above may provide proof of the species caught, but it does not allow for an opportunity to measure the length or weight of the shark (two very important factors in the judgement of common shark tournaments), and using heavier tackle takes means that the sharks put up less of a fight and are not sportily played to the boat but “horsed” or dragged to the rail. Perhaps the most important distinction for many fishermen is that boats in no-kill tournaments return to the docks empty-handed. It may seem funny that when billfish (marlin, swordfish and sailfish) tournaments put an end to the killing of their targeted species, there wasn’t much backlash from fishermen at all, but then those animals don’t have razor-sharp teeth, and they have not (generally) been profiled as ‘man eaters.’

Looking forward, a conservational shift in shark tournament fishing will mean that in catch-and-release events such as the Shark’s Eye, there will be no hanging jaws to display, no audiences applauding the killing of the monstrous beasts, and no barbecuing of chunky white shark meat at the bar–time-honored celebrations many veteran tournament fishermen are not terribly pleased at the idea of parting with. Many environmentally-minded advocates of the Shark’s Eye Tournament–and especially those who’ve not experienced shark tournaments in the past–may not see the tragedy the tradition faces, but to impassioned old-timers and traditionalists, it’s a grave one.

Celebrities, including many who in the past have taken pleasure themselves in watching the deep sea behemoths brought into the dock, are generating interest in the no-kill tournament, too. Jimmy Buffett, for example, fished in the inaugural event last year and was quoted as saying, “Such tournaments are the wave of the future.” His boat, The Last Mango, entered the tournament again this year.

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Jimmy Buffett looks out for sharks.

More seasoned or traditionally-minded fishermen are not forced to enter into the tournament per se, though there’s pressure from all around them to do so, and not unlike bullfighting, public interest in the more visceral shark-hunting days of yore is beginning to wane.

But then, times change. Even late Montauk native Frank Mundus, who is fabled to have been the inspiration behind the character “Quint” in Jaws, was calling for gentler treatment of sharks and the use of circle hooks (as opposed to straight or “J” hooks, which take seat indiscriminately, and often end up in fish’s vital organs) before his passing in 2008.

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“It’s about getting sustainable fisheries,” said Mr. Rav Freidel, a director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk and long-time local fisherman who was just simply fed up with “seeing dumpsters filled with dead sharks…Once the fishery is sustainable, hang the fish — I don’t care,” he told The New York Times.

By the end of last month’s tournament (July 12-13th), 64 sharks (33 makos, 31 blues) were reported caught, tagged and released alive and well using in-line, non-stainless steel circle hooks (stainless steel hooks remain in a shark’s mouth much longer as they don’t rust as quickly as others).

You can track the sharks that were tagged during the tournament this past weekend here.

To learn more, visit the tournament website here — OB

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