Thursday, August 25, 2016

IT'S TIME TO KILL OFF KILL TOURNAMENTS

The Ocean City, Maryland White Marlin Open fishing tournament was held a couple of weeks ago.  Now, there’s news that the first-place white marlin might be disqualified.

That’s a big deal.  Only one white marlin was caught in the event, a decent fish that weighed 76 ½ pounds.  Because it was the only white caught, because the tournament caters to high-rollers and because the winning boat was entered in all of the various prize categories, that single marlin was worth about $2.8 million to its captors—roughly $36,600 per pound.

It’s not clear why any disqualification might take place; apparently, the tournament directors are investigating a possible rules violation.  

Since the fish was the only white marlin caught over the course of the event, if it is disqualified, some of the prize money will slop over into the blue marlin division, which also saw a single fish weighed (although, since the boat that caught the blue marlin was not entered in all of the categories, the full $2.8 million apparently won’t be awarded).

The blue marlin wasn’t without controversy either.  Sometime between when it was gaffed and when it was weighed, it seems to have lost its tail, probably from being towed to the dock.  Because of that, some feared that it might also face disqualification as a “mutilated fish”; however, because the damage occurred after the fight was over, it was deemed a legitimate catch that was eligible for a prize.

From every report, the tournament directors have done everything right, and are working very hard to keep things honest, aboveboard and fully transparent.  It’s just that when you run fishing tournaments, sometimes things happen, particularly when there’s lots of money involved.


News quickly spread on the dock that a really big fish—it turned out to be an 883 blue, the largest fish ever weighed in the history of the event—had been caughtn.  The angler and the rest of the boat’s crew were up on Cloud 9, probably wondering how they were going to spend the $900,000 first prize, when word came out that one of the boat’s mates hadn’t had a fishing license when the big fish was caught.

Since tournament rules required that all participants comply with all state and federal laws and regulations, disqualification loomed.

That case went to court, going from the trial court through two rounds of appeals, which resulted in the matter being remanded to the trial court to begin the proceedings all over again.  Before trial began, the parties agreed to settle on unknown, but mutually agreeable, terms.

Again, the size of the prize led to lots of conflict.

That’s pretty understandable when prize money gets close to seven figures, but bad things can go on when there’s far less on the line.

Here on Long Island, there used to be a big shark tournament that runs out of Freeport on Father’s Day.  These days, it’s still a pretty good-sized event, but nothing like it was in its heyday, when it regularly maxed out at 300 boats, and the winning team might take home $30,000 or so when all of the side bets were taken into account.  

The event made things crazy enough offshore that I usually stayed inside and fished for fluke when it was held, instead of putting up with all of the tournament boats clogging up every piece of structure, anglers scanning their chum slicks with dollar signs in their eyes.

One year, bad weather postponed the tournament for a couple of weeks.  I forgot about the new date, and ran south of Shinnecock, to one of my favorite early-summer shark spots near the wreck of the Coimbra.  We were maybe 60 miles west of the tournament site, and not too many of the participating boats were likely to run that far.

Things were atypically slow for that time of year, and as we drifted, waiting for a fish, I turned on the VHF radio to see whether anyone else was having a more productive day.  It wasn’t long before a voice came over Channel 68.

“We just put a nice mako in the boat, 250, maybe 300 pounds.  We’re not in any tournaments, so if anyone wants the fish…  Best offer who comes up with the cash can come over and get it.”
I’d always heard about such things—the guy who buys a swordfish or bigeye off the deck of a longliner when there’s enough money on the line—but always wondered whether that sort of behavior was more rumor than real. 

That day provided my answer.

The boat with the mako ended up holding an on-air auction, changing the VHF channel every half-minute or so, to make it less likely that anyone would catch on.  With nothing else to do, I was following the proceedings across the dial until the bid got up to $2,500, at which point a fish finally picked up one of our baits and I lost track of the action.

Even so, I was morbidly curious to see the tournament results, and find out whether a 250 or 300 pound mako made the leader board; I admit that I was relieved to learn that anglers fishing way to the west found a bunch of big threshers, and that whoever bought the mako won nothing at all.

I used to do a lot of tournament fishing, and cashed more than my share of tournament checks, but as time went on, I just didn’t like the way things were headed.  A lot of good fish were hung on the scales, but there was little sportsmanship displayed anywhere.

I think the final straw came on the last day of a weekend-long tournament.  We put a 144 pound bigeye on the board maybe half an hour before they shut down the scales, and the guy that we knocked out of second place protested our fish on frivolous grounds, unsuccessfully trying to get it disqualified so that he could pocket the prize.

His protest went nowhere, but left a bad taste in my mouth.  I left my competitive days behind.  It just wasn’t fun anymore.

Contestants’ hunger for prize money, no matter how small, has spun out of control.  

A couple of weekends ago, a local club posted the results of their three-day tournament.  Included among the first-place finishers were an 89-pound mako and a tiny tiger shark that weighed a mere 123 pounds.  It turned out—yes, I asked—that neither fish won prizes, as they didn’t meet the 125-pound minimum weight; it's not clear why they were listed.

But prize winners or not, they were both killed.  Makos and tigers can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.  Why kill fish that small?  Particularly when the odds are very good that the tiger ended its days on a local landfill, and wasn’t even used for food.

Yet there were two anglers out there who would rather kill such small fish than lose a chance, however small, that they might pocket a check.

As anglers, it’s probably time to ask ourselves whether offshore kill tournaments still serve a purpose.

In the old days, what people sometimes call the “Golden Age” of offshore sport fishing, people fished them for bragging rights and maybe to get their name engraved on a pewter cup.  Sportsmanship mattered.  Fish were killed, yet respected.

Today, the fish are almost a sideshow, less important than the size of the prize check and the “calcuttas,” or side bets, that anglers can win.  When the tournament’s over, the once-beautiful creatures that hung in the sunlight, attracting tourists and flies, end up in landfills as food for the gulls.

I’m not going to argue that, even taken together, tournaments’ conservation impact is large.  Over the course of the season, a half-dozen longliners probably waste more sharks and billfish than tournaments do.

But that's not the point; today’s money tournaments, and the attitudes that they engender, do far too much damage to the concepts of sportsmanship and stewardship that have traditionally been a part of our sport.

Yes, there was a Golden Age, when anglers came to places such as Point Judith, Rhode Island and Wedgeport, Nova Scotia, to pit themselves against giant tuna for the sheer joy of the fight.  I wish that I had been there, and was in on the fun.

But whatever was golden in those long-past years is now tarnished and green, and feeds avarice rather than honor.  

Today’s tournaments provide little opportunity to teach a new generation of anglers about honor, honesty and sportsmanship, about respect for the fish and for fellow anglers.


It is past time for them to end.

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