Despite death threats, anglers ready to cast lines in shark fishing tournament off Palm Beach County
A TENSE DEBATE over a shark fishing tournament set for July 9 has roiled fishermen and their critics into a feeding frenzy of death threats, online name-calling and calls to boycott businesses owned by participants.
Tournament organizers say they’re simply helping biologists conduct important research and raising awareness to the growing problem of shark depredation — when sharks partially or completely consume a fish caught by fishing gear before it can be pulled onto a fishing boat.
A shark attacks a fish before anglers can bring it aboard.
Protesters call it a “shark killing tournament.’’ They claim the event is not at all about research, but all about “encouraging the massacre” of as many sharks as possible, to the detriment of the ecosystem.
To both sides, the jawwing from opponents is as annoying as the fictional shark hunter Quint scraping his fingernails across the blackboard in that famous scene from the movie “Jaws.’’
“They're ignorant and the problem is they don't know the facts,’’ said the tournament's organizer, a fisherman named Jason, who asked that his last name not be used because he has received death threats.
He said he has tried to explain the tournament’s purpose to opponents. “Their conversations are starting with, basically, ‘I’m going to fucking murder you and your whole family if you don’t shut this tournament down,’’’ he said.
Protesters at the southwest foot of the Blue Heron Bridge on July 2.
Jason said he has reported the death threats to the police.
The protesters have called for a boycott of companies owned by tournament participants, listing names of fishermen and where they work on an online petition. And at a protest July 2 at the southwest foot of the Blue Heron Bridge, at least one demonstrator held a sign showing a photo of Jason with the word “killer.’’
Many fishermen are disappointed the the attacks have gotten so personal. “There's a huge line being crossed,’’ he said.
But many protesters say the anglers are fair game.
Elise Herbert, who helped organize the protest, said her group does not condone or “promote anything illegal or anything shady. We are just here to protest the tournament itself because of how these fishermen have been acting online.’’
On Sportsmen Fighting for Marine Balance, a Facebook page with more than 6,000 followers dedicated to the problem of shark depredation, some comments have included “Let’s kill sharks,’’ “Thin the herd” and “kill them all.’’
Some of the 60 protesters on July 2 carried signs with screenshots of some of those comments.
The comments, Jason said, were not meant to be taken literally. They were only meant “to rile” up the opposition as part of a heated debate in response to comments from shark divers protesting the tournament. “Of course, they take those shots and cut out the other part of the conversation where they’re the ones who are antagonizing.’’
Herbert said the Facebook page’s original name was “Tax the Tax Man,’’ a reference to the slang name commonly used by anglers to describe shark depredation: “Shark Tax.’’
As for the online boycott call and the protest sign featuring the organizer’s photo, Herbert said, “Since they have been posting on social media, it's fair game that their information gets shared.’’
At least 60 boats are expected to participate in the tournament, each paying a $100 entry fee.
(Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)
Ninety percent of the tournament is catch-and-release, he said, meaning the majority of sharks caught would be returned to the ocean.
About a dozen bull sharks will be part of the kill division and brought in for the weigh-in, then donated to FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, which received a $195,306 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to work with recreational fishermen to study shark depredation.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will patrol the ocean during the tournament, making sure state and federal regulations for shark fishing are followed. But it will be nearly impossible for the FWC to keep an eye on every boat, opponents said.
“With 50 boats offshore, it's going to be very hard to regulate what the fishermen are doing out there, how many sharks are they killing and sinking to the bottom, which is what they're bragging that they're going to do,’’ said Herbert.
“What we need is stricter legislation from NOAA, which is supposed to be protecting our marine resources, not allowing them to be exploited.’’
Protesters circulated this photograph of a shark allegedly maimed by fishermen.
Protesters plan to have a documentary film crew follow the participants. They're also planning to patrol the tournament with drones.
“This tournament is not about sustenance. It is about the thrill of the kill and fosters a lack of respect for our sharks and their essential role in keeping our underwater ecosystems healthy and balanced, read a statement in an online petition urging people to call FWC commissioners and lawmakers.
While the online petition says “shark populations have declined by 70 percent over the past years and continue to decline worldwide,’’ the FWC says shark populations in the United States and in Florida are not as dire as they are in other parts of the world.
"U.S. shark fisheries are some of the most sustainable in the world. It’s a common misconception that all sharks are endangered,’’ the FWC said in a statement issued last week.
“No sharks off Florida are listed as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. It’s true that overfishing, habitat loss, and other practices have greatly depleted some shark populations. But thanks to decades of strict fishery management, shark populations in the United States are on the rebound.’’
(Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)
Despite the tension over the tournament, which is attracting national media, the debate is shining a light on the problem of shark depredation. The topic was discussed last year in FWC workshops at the request of stakeholders across the state, including the West Palm Beach Fishing Club.
“Over the years, there have been increasing reports of shark predation on fishers’ catch, where sharks will partially or completely consume an animal caught by fishing gear before it can be brought on board or after it is released back into the water,’’ the FWC said in a presentation at a May 21, 2021, workshop. “These interactions are not a new phenomenon, and shark predation on catch occurs in both commercial and recreational fisheries throughout the Atlantic, Gulf, and even globally.’’
But fishermen across Florida said it’s getting worse.
Sharks “have eaten a fisherman's fish off the line before, but not at the frequency it's happening today,’’ said Tom Twyford, president of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club.
“Years ago it was a rare, rare occurrence if someone was fighting a sailfish only to have it get preyed upon by a shark. Now it’s happening all the time.’’
Tom Guoba holds a red snapper that was partially consumed by a shark in the Gulf of Mexico near Alabama. (Photo credit: David Hay Jones)
A big part of the problem, local fishermen say, is an increase in dive boats and shark experience tours, some of which go into international waters three miles offshore where it’s legal to feed sharks. (It’s illegal to feed sharks in state waters.)
”You have 100 dive boats going out there on a daily basis and training these sharks to affiliate the boats with free food. They are constantly ringing the dinner bell,’’ Jason said.
“Tourism and shark feeding has turned a lot of the migrational sharks into residential sharks,’’ he said. “So all your your migratory sharks that would be only here for short period of time and then continue moving on are now staying and making the local reefs their full time home because there's no reason to keep migrating and following the food pattern when they have such an abundance of free food being handed to them on a daily basis here.’’
The FWC, in its presentation at the May 2021 workshop, said “some reports show that sharks associate the sound of an engine or the sound of a spear gun being shot underwater with the availability of easy prey. It is possible that sharks can form an association between fishing boats/gear and the presence of easy prey in the form of hooked or speared fish.’’
Protesters circulated this photograph of a shark impaled with a knife.
The agency also said “increased and repeated predation interactions can foster an overall negative attitude towards sharks in general.’’
One of the most egregious examples of that “negative attitude” occurred in 2017 when fishermen dragged a shark behind a boat while shooting it with a gun.
Protesters are worried the tournament Saturday will encourage those negative attitudes.
“It’s just an excuse to put a bounty on sharks and go out and kill them for fun,’’ said Key Largo diver Tim Rabe, one of 60 people who participated in the July 2 protest.
“These people, they're not hunting for food. When you're just killing a shark to kill it, that makes me sick. Imagine if sharks hunted humans for fun.’’
Rachel Heinrichs of Boynton Beach (far right) with her kids at a shark tournament protest July 2.
Luis Ramon, a dive boat operator from West Palm Beach, said there’s no evidence shark populations are out of control.
“I’m a fisherman also but I don’t kill to kill,’’he said at the July 2 protest. “If you're just going to kill sharks for a tournament, that’s not right.’’
Tournament organizers said anglers will comply with tournament rules and follow FWC and NOAA regulations.
As for the protesters, Jason said, “They're going to be really upset come July 9 when the tournament is still going on. They're not stopping this.’’
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Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.