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A Southwest Florida tarpon fishing tournament is stirring up more than just the waters of Boca Grande Pass.
Renowned Sanibel Island mystery writer Randy Wayne White has joined a growing grassroots group of anglers who say the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, which will begin this weekend, is unsporting and putting too much stress on the tarpon fishery.
Organizers of the catch-and-release tournament say the opposition is baseless but have changed some of their rules this year to try to reduce the number of Silver Kings that end up dead. Critics say the changes don't go far enough.
White, who owns the trademark for the Doc Ford Rum Bar & Grille in which he is a partner, has told tournament organizers that the restaurants on Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach are pulling their sponsorship of the tournament because it allows a style of fishing White considers unethical.
"They are essentially hijacking the fish," said White, a former Sanibel Island fishing guide who authors a series of novels featuring marine biologist Doc Ford.
For months, an anti-tournament group has collected about 500 petition signatures at fishing shows and through the YouTube video sharing website, calling for organizers to stop poor tarpon handling practices at the tournament or end the contest.
"The silent majority is getting less silent," said petition organizer Rick Hirsch, a New Yorker who spends summers fishing in Florida and founder of Save the Tarpon. "It's pretty clear to us that the broader fishing public hates the tournament, hates its tactics and is scared of the impact it has on the fishery."
Tournament organizers say they have science on their side and that any impact to the fishery is insignificant.
"What you have with this petition is a group of individuals attempting to use tactics to get people emotional because everybody cares about the fish," said Joe Mercurio, the tournament's vice president and general manager.
The tournament, which began in 2004, turns Boca Grande Pass into a fishing spectacle, with about 50 boats maneuvering for position in a kind of bumper boat rodeo. Teams come from all over North America for a string of a half-dozen weekends in May and June to contend for a piece of the men's and women's tournaments' combined $750,000 purse.
Their targets are thousands of tarpon that gather in a deep part of the pass, literally stacked on top of one another in a mountain of fish 40 feet tall, before they head offshore to spawn.
One of the tournament's allowed fishing techniques has teams of fishermen on each of the boats dropping artificial baits called jigs into the tightly packed school of fish and then jerking their lines upwards to snag a fish rather than waiting for the fish to bite.
Critics of the practice say many of the fish are hooked in the side, tail or belly, making it more likely they will not survive or will become easy prey for sharks.
Tarpon that reach the boat are gaffed through the lower mouth and then dragged to a weigh station, where teams pose with the giant fish for the benefit of tournament television crews. The shows, hosted by Mercurio, are broadcast weekly on sports channels to a loyal following of tarpon fishing fans.
"It's just very dramatic," he said. "It definitely adds to the excitement of the show."
But tournament critics want the weigh-ins to end, saying they are too stressful on the tarpon and make them more vulnerable to predation and death.
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission study has found that tournament-caught tarpon had higher levels of stress indicators in their blood than tarpon caught in the overall recreational fishery.
As for the tournament's effect on the tarpon fishery: "I don't think science has directly answered that question," said Aaron Adams, a senior scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and director of operations for the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.
The science so far was enough to prompt another Boca Grande tarpon tournament, the "World's Richest," to kick off Thursday without the weigh-ins. Instead, teams will be judged on the number of tarpon they catch and release, not the size of the fish. Jig-fishing isn't allowed.
Tarpon fishing is too important to the region to risk harming the fishery, said Lew Hastings, director of the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the "World's Richest."
"You can't be the Tarpon Capital of the World if we don't have tarpon," Hastings said.
Mercurio, with the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, defends the tournament's record on conservation. He cites a 2004 study by the Conservation Commission that found the number of tarpon snagged by jig-fishing is similar to the number snagged with other styles of fishing and that it does not contribute significantly to tarpon mortality.
On average each year, only 82 tarpon are dragged to the tournament's weigh station; even if each one later died, it would not have a significant effect on the fishery, Mercurio said.
Still, the tournament has changed its boundaries and increased the permitted fishing line size to try to land the fish more quickly and reduce stress on the fish.
Teams will no longer be allowed to hoist the fish out of the water for pictures at the weigh station, and trained "Release Teams" will be responsible for reviving the fish and releasing it, new rules say.
As for Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille yanking its sponsorship from the tournament, Mercurio said he doesn't expect other sponsors to follow suit.
"They understand the facts," Mercurio said, "and they understand we're not doing anything wrong."