For 36 years, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has been helping marine mammals in need.
"We get dolphins, sea turtles, even river otters," said Jody Armstrong, the aquarium's chief operating officer. "Our mission is rescue, rehab and release."
The majority of the animals cared for at the aquarium have had some negative interaction with fishermen or boaters.
"We have a lot of turtles that are injured as the result of boat strikes," Armstrong said. "Other animals get entangled in fishing line."
In fact, marine biologists have identified an alarming trend. Every year, more and more dolphins have been found either sick or dead after they ingested fishing lines or hooked baits.
"While we haven't seen that at our aquarium, we have had what we call 'beggar' dolphins come to us," Armstrong said. "These are animals that have come to depend on handouts from humans."
When Armstrong and her staff knocked around ideas for ways to raise money for the aquarium's ongoing programs, a fishing tournament was at the top of the list.
"It seemed like a natural fit," said Armstrong, herself an avid angler. "What better way to get fishermen involved than to bring them all together for a tournament?"
The aquarium has a variety of public outreach programs including eco-tours and summer camps for kids.
"Our purpose is to educate and teach people about the marine environment around them," she said. "Some of the most knowledgeable people I have met are the fishermen, because they are on the water all the time."
Armstrong hopes to gather a wide variety of anglers, from those who fish from flats boats to kayaks, and perhaps even find some new recruits.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a working animal hospital, relies on a network of more than 500 volunteers to help in its mission of rescue, rehab and release.
Over the years, the aquarium staff has rescued hundreds of animals and released many of them back into the wild.
Volunteers are crucial to the aquarium's operations. The sea turtle stranding response team is on call 24 hours a day.
Since 1978, the aquarium's sea turtle program has been responsible for monitoring all of the sea turtle nests in Pinellas County. So far this year, more than 100 nests have been identified along the county's beaches.
In the past two years, aquarium volunteers have helped more than 13,000 sea turtle hatchlings make it safely to the ocean.
A case study
In the fall of 2007, a loggerhead sea turtle was found floating just off the Dunedin Causeway near Honeymoon Island. The turtle, a female, was entangled in seaweed and covered with barnacles, which means she had been sick for a while.
Volunteers transported the sick turtle, which they nicknamed "Charlie Brown," to the aquarium. The medical staff was concerned about the turtle's chances for survival because her weight had dropped to just 200 pounds.
But she was treated with antibiotics and supplements, and within a week she was eating more than 1 pound of squid a day.
On Oct. 17, Charlie Brown was deemed ready to return to the wild, and with a crowd gathered to cheer her on, she was released on the north end of Clearwater Beach, where she entered the Gulf of Mexico and swam away.
A new look
In 2007, the aquarium underwent major renovations, including expansion of the dolphin viewing area, the addition of a new underwater viewing tunnel and a total refurbishment of the fish, turtle and shark exhibits.
The new look seems to have helped attendance. Last month, 20,756 walked through the aquarium's doors, setting a new attendance record, a 62 percent increase over the year before.
"People who had been to the old aquarium wouldn't recognize the place," Armstrong said. "We really modernized it and made it more visitor-friendly."