OCEAN CITY — In terms of evolution, sharks are a masterpiece. They went through their share of evolutionary changes, but that was a long, long time ago. Sharks are the ocean’s public workers, keeping their environment healthy by removing the weak, dead and dying. They’ve withstood the test of time, largely unchanged since before man ever walked the planet.
It would likely still be that way if man never turned his attention to the water. But these days, there are places in the world where sharks are hunted without regulation or concern for their dwindling populations. An unrestricted industrial harvest is driven primarily by the Asian market for shark-fin soup. Alarm bells are ringing around the world: sharks are in trouble.
In 30 years, the Ocean City Shark Tournament has evolved from a small "club" event to one of the largest shark tournaments along the coast. In the early years, only trophies and a few rods and reels were given out to winners. In 2010, more than $142,000 was awarded to top anglers in the tournament. Just like sharks, the Shark Tournament’s success can be attributed to long-term adaptation.
As one of the founders and a director of the OC Shark Tournament, I know that from the beginning we made a commitment to run an event with an eye on conservation. By adapting the tournament to address critical issues with sharks, we’ve been able to keep the event on a track that’s fun for fishermen and educational for spectators but not at the expense of a lot of dead sharks.
To help ensure that tournament anglers bring back to the scales only the right size and type of sharks, during the last three decades the OC Shark Tournament has maintained minimum size limits higher than what the government allows fishermen to take, made certain species eligible for catch-and-release points only, and increased the prize money payouts for the release division.
While those efforts have paid off by providing for a release rate of more than 95 percent, the evolution hasn’t stopped as both tournament directors and participants have continued to look at ways to make the event better. In 2010, the release division was expanded by opening five entry levels for that category. That move increased the total release division payout from $5,500 to more than $20,000, giving fishermen a lot more incentive to release certain sharks.
The tournament will continue to feature two divisions that allow anglers to bring sharks to the scales. But knowing that competitors tend to follow the money and pursue whatever division has the biggest payout, tournament directors are looking to make the release division cash and prize packages so attractive that, by their own choosing, fishermen will voluntarily opt to release more sharks.
The changes made in last year’s event were minor compared to what’s in store for the tournament in 2011. This year all fishermen will be required to use circle hooks so that released sharks will have the best chance for survival. Minimum size limits will be increased to help keep some of the smaller sharks that won’t qualify for prizes from being brought in, there will be a new daily cash award for the most sharks released on each of the three fishing days. A cash award will be given out for the most mako sharks released, too.
To ensure that everyone who releases a shark gets the recognition they deserve, all fishing teams will have the chance to step into the "Release Pavilion" on the dock at the weigh-ins to have press photos taken and their releases announced to the crowd.
News of these conservation efforts hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last fall the members of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation arranged a meeting to discuss options for a possible joint effort to promote shark education and conservation. Most fishermen know Guy Harvey as a world-renowned marine biologist and artist whose true-to-life artwork is found around the globe.
In the discussions with Guy Harvey, it was clear that the Ocean Foundation and the OC Shark Tournament shared the similar goals of minimizing shark mortalities and maximizing educational outreach about shark conservation. Both sides also agreed that the best way to prompt more tournament anglers to release more sharks was to boost the prize packages of the release division. So the foundation offered to provide cash and prizes that will more than double the amount of guaranteed payouts in the release division. Tournament organizers are excited about the support from such a well-known and well-respected leader in marine conservation.
The take of sharks by sport fishermen is minuscule compared to what’s killed aboard commercial vessels around the world, but if shark populations are to survive, no one who engages the fishery can be exempt from the burden of providing additional measures of conservation. Everyone needs to evolve in the right direction.