OCEAN CITY – The 27th Annual Ocean City Shark Tournament got underway yesterday despite an effort by a federal conservation group to ban the event and similar tournaments up and down the coast, but tournament organizers said this week the campaign waged by the U.S. Humane Society was unfounded and misdirected.
The U.S. Humane Society has waged a campaign over the last few weeks calling for a ban on the Ocean City Shark Tournament and similar events, citing cruelty to sharks and the impact of catching and killing the creatures on several species’ declining numbers. The U.S. Humane Society states “shark fishing could be the planet’s most brutal industry,” and while it may be true the indiscriminant killing of sharks by commercial fishing interests worldwide is having a devastating impact on the misunderstood predators of the sea, the 20 or so sharks taken during tournaments such as the Ocean City Shark Tournament each year is a drop in the bucket compared to the wholesale slaughter of the creatures day in and day out in every corner of the world.
Senior Vice President for Wildlife and Habitat Protection at the Humane Society of the United States John Grandy recently wrote a letter to the Ocean City Mayor and Council urging them to discontinue “the cruel and inhumane shark killing tournaments.”
“It is time for a change in the way we view sharks and their protection,” said Grandy in the letter. “We ask you, on behalf of Ocean City, to take a leadership position with respect to protecting sharks and the reputation of Ocean City, and call for an immediate and indefinite moratorium on all Ocean City shark tournaments.”
While it may be true some shark species are becoming depleted around the world, due in large part to an international harvesting effort carried out by some countries with less stringent regulations and an even far less conservation ethic, targeting events such as the Ocean City Shark Tournament, which got underway yesterday, appears to be misdirected. Scores of boats and hundreds of anglers are participating in the event again this year, and at the end of the day on Saturday, around 20 sharks will have been brought to the scales at the Ocean City Fishing Center.
The problem, according to Captain Mark Sampson, who organized the shark tournament 27 years ago and has served as its director ever since, is not with the recreational tournaments, but rather with the international commercial fleets. Some target sharks for their meat and others target the creatures just for their fins, which have medicinal and culinary value, while others kill sharks indiscriminately as a by-catch while targeting other species.
Sampson said the U.S. Humane Society’s effort to shut down the Ocean City tournament and similar events up and down the coast is misguided because it fails to go after the bigger culprit.
“The big picture is, if these people were truly interested in helping sharks, they would be working with federal and international fisheries managers to help curb the harvest, and the indiscriminant slaughter, by commercial long-liners,” he said. “I’m not saying go over to the commercial harbor in West Ocean City and check those guys. Those guys are playing by the rules. It’s that international commercial sector that is responsible for the most shark mortality.”
There are stringent federal size limitations for sharks caught commercially and recreationally in the U.S., and the minimum length and weight requirements during the Ocean City Shark Tournament take them a step farther. For that reason, even less sharks are killed during the tournament than during a normal three-day span on the offshore fishing calendar, according to Sampson.
“The regulations for our tournament are far stricter than even the federal regulations,” he said. “Fishermen going out there and targeting sharks not during the tournament are far more likely to kill more sharks than they are during the tournament. In the three fishing days during the tournament, there are typically around 20 sharks brought to the scale. In a normal three-day span, far more sharks are killed because the minimum standards are not as high.”
Typically, the leaderboard for the tournament is filled out early, and, subsequently, captains and anglers will know if the sharks they catch have a shot at the leaders.
“The bar is set early and any angler or captain catching a shark after that is aware of what is on the board,” said Sampson. “For that reason, even less sharks are brought to the scales because everybody knows what it will take to finish in the money.”
Shark tournaments are easy prey for conservation groups because of the drama of hauling a big shark to the scales in front of an enthralled public, compared to the nameless, faceless commercial harvest in the oceans of the world. For that reason, the U.S. Humane Society is directing its conservation efforts at the dozens of sharks caught in tournaments and not where it should be, according to Sampson.
“This is a pathetic attempt by the U.S. Humane Society banking on facts and figures that are simply wrong, or spun in just the right way,” he said. “They’re looking for the sympathy factor from a public uneducated about sharks.”
Sampson said the tournament, from the beginning, has been more about conservation and education than killing sharks. It’s a message the tournament has preached since a time when sharks had a less positive public persona.
“From the early 80s when this tournament began, we were just coming off the ‘Jaws’ syndrome when the mentality was the only good shark is a dead shark,” he said. “From the beginning, this tournament was dedicated to re-educating fishermen and the public about the importance of these creatures. We’re delivering the same message 27 years later.”
However, the U.S. Humane Society looks past the conservation and education efforts of the tournament and locks in only on the handful of sharks hauled up on the scale during the event, according to Sampson.
“They don’t want public education,” he said. “They want to infect people with their ideas. They complain about the sharks being cleaned in front of a crowd, but that meat goes to area shelters and food banks. Yes, some sharks are being killed, but that’s real life and it isn’t always pretty. It’s not chicken in the grocery store wrapped up in a Styrofoam tray and a piece of cellophane.”