APOLLO BEACH — The mullet head didn't stand a chance. "There's nothing a blacktip wants more than a nice, stinky chunk of fish," Joel Brandenburg said. "It's only a matter of time." Brandenburg, a local charter boat captain and avid shark wrangler, knows his craft. He is one of the founders of the Blacktip Shark Shootout, and this year, he helped the tournament, which starts tonight and ends Saturday, move to an all-release format. Shark, like tarpon, could be the next great catch-and-release fishery. Every angler knows that if you catch a fish and kill it, you've got dinner. But if let it go, it can be caught again and again. "And they are pretty hardy," Brandenburg said. "Sharks put up a great fight, and after you release them, they will swim off as if nothing ever happened."
Sharks are a hot topic. Many believe that the struggle to protect the ocean's top predator will be the next great fisheries conservation battle.
Some estimates put the number of sharks killed each year worldwide by commercial fishermen at close to 90 million. But those same sharks, left in a catch-and-release recreational fishery, could be a boost to coastal economies. Currently, recreational anglers in Florida can take one per harvester per day or two per vessel per day, whichever is less.
Many recreational anglers, Brandenburg included, are taking it one step further.
"Every fish we catch (in the tournament, which benefits pediatric cancer research) is tagged before it is released," he said. "We are helping Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research collect data on shark movement and migration patterns. So every fisherman in this tournament will be doing their share for science."
If you see a shark in the water while you are swimming, paddling or fishing, chances are it is a blacktip shark. One of the most common species found in local waters, these sharks range up and down the Atlantic Coast and throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
Blacktips are the bane of surfers on Florida's East Coast. The species has been implicated in numerous "attacks," but most are cases of mistaken identity and result in only minor injuries.
During the spring and summer, blacktips gather in Tampa Bay to pup (have babies). It is not uncommon to see large groups of blacktips feeding in shallow water when prey is plentiful.
These sharks are relatively slow-growing — it takes four to five years to reach maturity — and they live for about 10 years, reaching a maximum length of about 6 feet.
Of all the sharks, blacktips are considered among the best game fish, because when hooked, they make jaw-dropping leaps.
Tagging for science
Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory has been tagging and releasing sharks with angler assistance for more than 20 years.
In 2005, a shark was recaptured 3,158 days after it had been originally tagged. The baby blacktip was caught and tagged by an angler in Charlotte Harbor's Pine Island Sound in 1996, and then nearly nine years later, it was caught again about 20 miles away in Boca Grande Pass.
But blacktips have also been known to swim great distances. In 2005, another blacktip was caught in St. Joseph Bay on the Florida Panhandle. The shark had been originally tagged three years earlier near the Bahia Honda Bridge in the Florida Keys, nearly 400 miles to the south.
Over the years, Mote researchers and anglers such as those entered in this weekend's Blacktip Shark Shootout have tagged thousands of sharks. The data gathered has shed new light on species migration as well as survival and growth, critical information utilized by officials to better manage and protect the species.
Too big to land
After a good, hourlong soaking, the mullet head's scent drifted far from our tiny fishing boat. Brandenburg kept his game face on and hoped that sooner or later a shark would grab the tasty morsel and run.
And when the shark hit, it hit hard. Brandenburg handed the rod off and ran to the bow to unhook the anchor. The fish swam toward the Gandy Bridge … 100 yards, 200 yards, 300 yards … in less than two minutes. Then, when the line was gone, it peeled off the backing and broke free.
"Wow," I said. "I don't think I ever saw that happen before."
"Don't worry," Brandenburg said. "There's more where that came from."
Call Brandenburg of Ana Banana Fishing Company at 1-877-766-6566. The captains meeting for Shootout entrants was Thursday, but the final photo check-in is 6 p.m. Saturday at the Docks in Apollo Beach.
Catch a tagged shark?
Anglers should send the tag and other information to the Center for Shark Research, Mote Marine Laboratory, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, FL 34236.
Please include name, address and phone number, as well as the date and location of capture, including total length and estimated weight of the shark.
Anglers can also call toll-free 1-800-691-6683. To learn more, go to Mote.org.