Controversial shark fishing tournament draws criticism from activists

Nearly a dozen bull sharks were killed last weekend in a contest to see who could catch the biggest.

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. – Nearly a dozen bull sharks were killed last weekend in a contest to see who could catch the biggest.

Removing the apex animals can have a huge negative impact on our oceans and critics are speaking out about the shark fishing tournament that was all perfectly legal.

A total of 11 mature bull sharks were hunted and killed, all in the name of science.

“We are starting to get to the point where there’s an imbalance, where there’s a little bit too many sharks at the moment,” said Robert “Fly” Navarro.

In addition to being one of the organizers of the tournament organizers, Navarro is also a sport fishing contest promoter who happens to sit on NOAA’s Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel.

He says he’s been calling attention to what he calls an increase in the local shark population for the past six years and insists this tournament was needed.

“This is where I make my living, I make my living on the water,” Navarro said. “And one of my arguments about it is we are starting to get to a point you’re losing 50 percent of what we hooked to sharks.”

Last year NOAA awarded a $195,000 grant to Florida Atlantic University to work with local fisherman to study a reported increase in depredation when sharks take angler’s catch before its landed.

FAU’S Dr. Matt Ajemian and his team were there at the tournament weigh-in, taking samples from the dead sharks.

“We were approached, as they were wanting to donate carcasses from the tournament, they wanted to have some sort of scientific value associated with that, so we volunteered,” said Ajemian. “There are certain types of tissues that you cannot get from live animals.”

Also at the tournament was a conservationist who was invited on the premises, welcomed at the weigh in and shared videos with Local 10 News.

“I’m a biologist and I grew up down here in South Florida. I grew up sport fishing,” said the conservationist. “What I witnessed was exactly what I expected, which was people excited to kill animals for no reason. People spreading lies about the number of sharks out there.”

The tournament rules adhered to Florida law, which says anglers can only legally harvest bull sharks; one per person or two per boat, whichever is less.

But was this really only about science?

Facebook posts on the group’s page revealed some of the angler’s true intentions. One post stated: “Kill as many as possible every day please.” Another said: “Big or Small, kill em all.”

Ryan Walton was one of many conservationists with eyes on the water during the tournament, making sure everyone played by the rules.

The fishermen on one boat were caught beating a protected sandbar shark. Harvesting them is illegal in Florida and so is dragging a shark until it dies, even a bull shark. One of the anglers boasted about doing just that, saying he dragged the bull shark for two hours until it finally died.

“They’re calling it a tournament, but it’s really a cull,” said Walton. “It’s not the first time we’ve seen it. What’s crazy, though, is it’s legal every day of the week here in Florida.”

“This is a spiteful, spiteful killing event by individuals who realize that through the State of Florida, the bull shark is a legal species to catch,” Walton continued. “So they’ve taken advantage of that, and they’re doing everything they can to wipe them out.”

Also watching the waters was shark dive operator Luis Roman.

“There are not that many sharks,” he said. “People are complaining that sharks are eating my fish and all these other things, but the reality is, you know when you’re overfishing, there’s less fish for them to eat, and (sharks) have to eat.”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida now has a record-breaking 1,000,000-plus registered boats.

“There was a major boom in recreational fishing pressure,” said Ajemian. “In that combination, it’s creating some of these heightened interactions. It’s very difficult to say how many sharks are out there.”

So Navarro is hoping this will now push a new shark stock assessment.

“My job is just to report to the federal government, ‘hey, we’re starting to get an imbalance here,’” Navarro said.

But for shark activists like 14-year-old Cade, this should serve as a wakeup call to all who care about the ocean.

“Five, ten sharks, it doesn’t matter if it’s one shark or ten sharks, it’s still going to have an impact,” said Cade. “It’s an animal that we need. They keep our ecosystems healthy, they eat all the sick and injured fish, and they keep our oceans in check. You take the sharks out, the entire ecosystem collapses.”

A total of 54 boats took part in the tournament, but only 13 came back for the weigh in. In the end, none of the shark meat was consumed, but the jaws were taken as trophies.

Not the fins though, as that’s illegal in Florida.

Navarro says about 150 other sharks were also caught, tagged and released, but those are his numbers.

Bull sharks are a near threatened species, there are more shark fishing tournaments happening in other states this summer. The next one starts Friday in Alabama.

For those who would like to have their voices heard on this issue, contact FWC and NOAA fisheries.

For FWC fisheries, click here.

For NOAA fisheries, click here.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.