Catch-and-Release: The Perfect Model

Sharks were caught, tagged with tracking devices, and then released

In a landmark decision, the United States National Marine Fisheries Service has listed the scalloped hammerhead shark as an endangered species, making it the first shark protected under the Endangered Species Act. This is only one of the top ocean predators left vulnerable because of fishing and other human activities. Many additional species of shark are considered at risk of extinction, thanks largely to a continuing demand for their fins for soup.

In the waters off eastern Long Island, there is little commercial fishing specifically for sharks. Instead, they are harried by sportfishermen, often during tournaments in which money and bragging rights are at stake. It is surprising that there is just one catch-and-release tournament here, the $10,000 Shark’s Eye competition, which debuted last summer at the Montauk Marine Basin and will be held again this weekend.

By all accounts, the tournament was a success. Sharks were caught, tagged with tracking devices, and then released. No weigh-in system was used; instead, each shark caught was photographed and allotted a set amount of points based on its species. To make sure all competitors played fair, a member from a rival team was on board at all times.

Last year’s winner, Richie Nessel, said the Shark’s Eye was the “most fun” he had ever had in a tournament. It provided education and entertainment for students at the Montauk School as well, who named a 200-pound blue shark Beamer. His movements were tracked at Ocearch.org, so it is known that he traveled over 9,000 miles since the tournament last July. As of this week, his satellite tag was somewhere off Costa Rica.

The Shark’s Eye tournament and others like it also provide valuable scientific data. Tracking systems allow scientists to gather information about sharks’ health as well as travels. Furthermore, they promote public interest in sharks. If people become interested enough in a shark like Beamer to track his progress, perhaps they will care enough to avoid turning him into soup. Six other sharks are expected to be tagged during this weekend’s tournament.

Conservationists would welcome the expansion of catch-and-release tournaments, and we believe more of them would not reduce enthusiasm. The model exists, it isn’t difficult to copy, and it has proven successful. Montauk is known worldwide as a fishing community and has the ability to influence the fishing world. There is no better place for ocean conservation to take hold. Better, more progressive tournaments could help make that happen.