Twenty years ago, Florida had a dozen or more fishing tournaments that targeted sharks.
But as shark populations declined worldwide, so did the number of tournaments that resulted in shark deaths. On the eastern shore of Tampa Bay, the 5-year-old Blacktip Shark Shootout has enjoyed success but not without controversy.
"We are not a straight slaughter shark tournament," said Phil Pegley, who helped organize the Apollo Beach-based event scheduled for this weekend. "We try to limit the number of sharks killed and only weigh in the ones that count."
Unlike many species of sharks, blacktips are not considered overfished.
"As a species, blacktips are actually in pretty good shape," said Mote Marine Laboratory's Bob Hueter, one of the nation's leading shark experts. "But it is not the number of sharks these tournaments kill, it is the message that they send."
Many species of large coastal sharks, including the hammerhead and tiger, are in trouble, Hueter said. Years of overfishing and a poor public image thanks to the movie Jaws have put sharks on many anglers' hit lists.
"Kill tournaments are definitely not the way to go," he said.
The Apollo Beach event asked for Mote's help, but the Sarasota-based marine research facility declined.
"We couldn't participate based on the format," Hueter said.
But the tournament did get help from numerous sponsors, including the St. Petersburg Times.
The sponsorship, which mostly consists of ads in a regional news section, is part of the newspaper's outreach to community organizations, said Times communications director Jounice Nealy-Brown. The paper wasn't aware of the conservation concerns over the tournament format, she added.
A portion of the money generated through entry fees and a post-tournament shark fish fry will benefit the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, a Tampa-based charity best known for a celebrity, catch-and-release fishing tournament staged each fall out of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg.
A spokesman for the charity, which helps families of children stricken with cancer, said the organization was unaware that shark tournaments were considered controversial.
Dr. Phil Motta, a marine biologist with the University of South Florida, said he also had mixed feelings about participating in this year's event.
"We just heard about it last week," Motta said. "We have a study ongoing and needed two sharks. We didn't want the sharks to go to waste."
Pegley said the tournament's anglers make every effort to keep the number of sharks killed to a minimum. The rules state participants should monitor the VHF radio so they know what size fish is in the lead so smaller ones can be released.
"I think in the average year we kill about six fish," he said.
But Hueter said killing sharks is not a message that should be shared.
"It is really sad, but kill tournaments are making a comeback," he said. "That is one reason why we started our Ultimate Shark Challenge, to show that you could have a catch-and-release shark tournament, with all the excitement of an event where fish are actually weighed in."
The May tournament, which paid out $10,000 to the winning team, had a limited field. Anglers videotaped the catching and releasing of sharks, which was then beamed back to Mote for fans to see.
"It was a huge success," Hueter said.
Pegley, meanwhile, said he has learned from Hueter that there is an alternative.
"This will be the last year for this format," he said. "Next year we will go all catch and release."