• Guy Harvey
  • Celebrity

Monster shark fishing tournaments face pressure to reform

Competitions to catch monster sharks have been held on the US Atlantic coast for decades, but now critics are stepping up their fight and calling for a ban.

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It's 4am at the dock on Block Island, a teardrop-shaped New England vacation spot situated off Rhode Island, and tempers are fraying among fishermen competing in one of the region's growing number of big money "monster" shark fishing tournaments.

At the previous night's pre-competition gathering, one fisherman tore off his shirt and hurled it at the organizers, enraged at what he saw as an insufficient prize pot. Then, on the opening morning of a two-day contest to reel in the largest shark, anger flares from a very different source.

The Guardian is supposed to join the boat skippered by Peter Brancaleone, last year's winner of the Block Island Giant Shark Tournament and rotund star of the TV show Shark Hunters. But one of his crew isn't happy, believing that this reporter is a government spy planted to spread allegations of cheating against Brancaleone.

"Either he gets off the boat or I do," the crew member says. "If he sees us pushing 16 sharks off the side of the boat, what do you think this British fuck is going to tell people? Get him off the boat."

This pall of suspicion and paranoia isn't new. In 2014, Brancaleone allegedly failed a polygraph test following a yellowfin fishing competition in nearby Montauk, New York, leading to a spot of "pushing and shoving". As this reporter was unceremoniously deposited back on to the dock mere minutes after boarding, the high stakes of this controversial sport were made unequivocally clear.

The north-eastern seaboard is the spiritual home of "monster fishing" – a term coined in the 1950s by Montauk legend Frank Mundus (thought to be the inspiration for Quint, the monomaniacal shark hunter in Jaws). Competitions are promoted as days for families and communities to come together.

Many of the competitions support charities and some have been running for decades. This year there are 71 registered tournaments along the Atlantic coast in which large pelagic sharks can be caught – 28 target sharks exclusively. One, called Warriors for Warriors, encourages former US Navy Seals to catch sharks to raise money for military veterans.

Species commonly allowed by competition rules are the porbeagle, short fin mako, blue and thresher shark. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the north-west Atlantic population of porbeagle as endangered; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) saysthe species is "overfished". The common thresher and shortfin mako are listed by the IUCN as "vulnerable", the classification before becoming "endangered".

The quest to haul in giant sharks used to be a free-for-all, with those who took part in the 1970s recalling thousands of rotting carcasses laid out on the parking lots of places like Montauk. Worldwide, an unsustainable number of sharks arestill being dispatched but regulations have been tightened in the US. Catching sharks for the controversial practice of shark finning is being stamped out and competitions have set limits on what can be caught.

The Block Island tournament, now in its third year, allows just one shark for each of the 30 competing boats to be brought back and weighed on the dock. Weight limits apply – no thresher shark under 225lb, for example, can be caught. The use of harpoons or the cutting off and parading of shark heads is banned.

But the tournaments remain controversial in some quarters. In 2014, the Monster Shark Tournament was run out of Martha's Vineyard because participants refused to give up their on-dock weigh-in and locals became upset at the crowds and the fishermen's occasional rowdy behavior. And even the fishermen report seeing far fewer tiger and hammerhead sharks than they once did.

"When we started campaigning against this we were vilified but we now have lots of people telling fishermen that it is time to stop," said the Humane Society's Dr John Grandy, who has spoken out against shark fishing tournaments for the past decade.

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"They harvest the biggest sharks, which harms the breeding population. They also prey upon the negative reputation sharks and often have encouraged people to kill them. We are concerned about the impact upon a rank of shark species."

UN patron of the oceans Lewis Pugh called for a global ban on tournaments in which sharks are killed.

"I think it is sending the very, very worst message to our children, to the world, when we are hunting threatened species," said the South African endurance swimmer and ocean activist. "We need to move away from a world where we fear sharks to a world where we fear a world without sharks."

Recreational angling has overtaken commercial fishing in terms of its impact on large (non-dogfish) shark numbers in the US. In 2014, anglers took 226,000 large sharks. Tournaments account for a tiny fraction of this – sometimes just half a dozen animals at a time – but the rewards can be substantial.

For snaring last year's largest shark at Block Island, Brancaleone won more than $40,000. Only about $5,000 of this was official prize money, with the rest made up of side bets, known as calcuttas, placed among the fishermen. This year's event saw competitors place thousands of their own dollars into the pot, on top of the $975 entry fee.

Big payouts also need big sponsors. Many fishing-related brands are associated with the tournaments. But alongside advertisements for local tackle shops, restaurants and taxidermists, the Guardian discovered 37 large and multinational corporations are sponsoring tournaments in which sharks are killed and weighed in on the docks.

These included alcohol brands such as Budweiser, Coors, Miller, Samuel Adams and Captain Morgan as well as household names like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Nissan, Hertz, Yamaha and Merrill Lynch.

These companies are now coming under pressure to pull their sponsorship from a campaign instigated by John Hourston, a UK-based campaigner who started the Blue Planet Society. The North Atlantic Monster Shark Tournament, which took place last weekend, had offered a new Toyota Tundra to any angler who broke a state record. At the behest of Hourston, Pugh contacted the chief executive of Toyota's North American division. Within hours, the car company announced the end of the relationship.

Many recreational shark fishermen are baffled at the fuss. They maintain the tournaments are fun, sustainable events that draw good crowds. They point to the strict limit on what can be caught and the fact that dead sharks are made good use of – either as chum, typically the fate of blue sharks, or thickly cut steaks, in the case of large threshers.

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The critics are "not fully informed, they just have a general feeling they don't like sharking", says Matthew Kriedel, director of the Block Island tournament.

Kriedel said the atmosphere at the tournament has been "very positive" and he hopes to grow it to a fleet of 100 boats in the future. As he stands by the weigh-in hook by the dock, boats begin to pull in with their quarries throughout the afternoon.

The very first shark to come in is a thresher weighing 360lb – 100lb heavier than Brancaleone's winning mark from last year. Threshers are elegant creatures with small teeth but huge arcing tails that they use to stun and kill prey; fishermen are wary of the appendage even once the shark is dead. The shark is dangled from the hook for weighing in front of an expectant crowd, with the jubilant crew getting their picture in front of the beast after the line is clipped from its mouth.

Also among the catches are mako and blue sharks, typically half the size of the large thresher. Some of the fishermen puff up their deeds by pulling back the shark's snout to bare the serrated teeth, but in truth the sharks look gracefully defeated rather than fearsome. Many have gaping wounds in their sides from hooks used to maneuver them for this grand ceremony.

One mako has blood spouting from its nose down its silky white belly, prompting an onlooking child to loudly ask his mother if the shark was dying. "It's blood. Let's go get a Coke over there," is the answer.

Boats scour for sharks as far as 60 miles from shore but the animals are mostly found throughout this stretch of New England water, drawing competitors from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Typically, sieve-like buckets of chum are lowered over the edge of the boat to release a "slick" of bait, usually composed of frozen mackerel. A hook is fed through a single fish and left within the churning bait, with a tempted shark wrestling with the fisherman for half an hour or more before being hauled aboard.

Some opponents of the tournaments, such as Grandy, are happy for them to continue if they use circle-shaped hooks that easily allow the release of sharks after capture. The Block Island tournament allows the use of J-shaped hooks which cause, according to several studies, considerable distress to sharks when they are used to catch and kill them.

Accusations of cheating appear to be routine among the fishermen. Some are accused of placing weights within sharks – a suspicion that is investigated by Kriedel, who slices open the stomach to check. This procedure also determines the freshness of the organs.

A fresh kill is important to confirm due to previous cheating that saw competitors catch a large shark prior to the tournament and then stash it out at sea, tied to a buoy for later collection.

Other nefarious activities include the purchasing of large sharks from commercial trawlers, which are prohibited from entering the tournament but often have unwanted hefty sharks that they have no use for. Rumours swirl that this year's competition features a man banned from another tournament who is operating under an alias.

Aside from the finger-pointing, there is little angst over the tournament at Block Island, according to Kriedel. "It's a fishing island," he says. "The people who come here are boaters who fish. It's our kind of community."

As far as the US government is concerned, Kriedel is right to be relaxed. Katherine Brogan, a spokeswoman for Noaa, which regulates fishing in federal waters, said it was important to differentiate the global status of a shark species from the localized populations in the US.

"US shark populations are either healthy or, if stocks are lower than they should be, our management measures allow the stock to rebuild while still supporting commercial and recreational fishing. Noaa believes that US recreational shark fisheries, including shark tournaments, are sustainably managed," she said.

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But critics are pressing to strip shark tournaments of their reputations and, if not close them, force them to adopt catch-and-release rather than the ceremonial dockside weighing.

Pugh said: "You see these pictures of sharks hanging upside down from gantries with their mouths open and people taking selfies. It's akin to killing a lion, or a polar bear or an African elephant.

"Would Toyota South Africa have sponsored a tournament where if you killed the biggest lion you get a new Toyota Tundra? They would never, ever do that. Why is it that we are in a situation where what happens offshore, what happens in the oceans, that's OK?"

Pugh said the chief executives of all 37 companies still involved in sponsoring shark killing tournaments could expect similar letters to the one he sent Toyota. Pugh added that he'd got an emailed response from Toyota that admitted: "Some things defy common sense."

"From a purely scientific standpoint: in management terms I don't believe there is an issue," said marine ecologist Sarah Fowler, a longtime member and former chair of the IUCN's Shark Specialist Group.

"But I agree that it seems inappropriate for big commercial sponsors to be sponsoring the killing of a threatened species when it's not necessary. You can have tag and release tournaments instead and thereby contribute to research programs."

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That possibility seems a long way away on Block Island. Another huge thresher has been hoisted on to the dock. It weighs 356lb – just shy of the leading fish, drawing a collective gasp from the crowd. The crew who caught the shark sail away with it, the captain butchering it as his family looks on. "Ah, isn't that nice, the whole family involved in that," says an onlooker, squinting into the fading light.

The full list of corporations involved in Atlantic shark hunting tournaments that are not catch and release-only is below. Further details are here.

They are: Coca-Cola, Globalstar, Lexus, Caterpillar, Goslings Rum, Yamaha, Budweiser, Boat US (Berkshire Hathaway), West Marine, Astoria Bank, Home Depot, West Marine, BASF, Dow, Veolia, Ford, Phillips 66, Olin, Home Depot, Hertz, Maserati, Ferrari, Captain Morgan, Miller Lite, Coors Lite, Milwaukee Tool Corporation, Academy Sports, Nissan, Samuel Adams, Cummins, Garmin, Aon, Intercontinental Hotels, Merrill Lynch (Bank of America), RBC Wealth Management, The Wahlrich Group and Unity International Group.