Are Saltwater Fishing Tournaments Bad For Conservation?
By Stu Bristol

Should saltwater fishing tournaments be abolished in Maine's coastal waters? That's the question this month and, before anglers lay down their dollars in hopes of cashing in on a trophy bass, bluefish or other saltwater fish, they might want to consider the possible consequences.

I'm considered to be one of the last dyed-in-the-wool hook and bullet writers in New England, so why do I cringe at the sight of largemouth bass being held aloft for minutes at a time on the Saturday morning fishing shows? Why does the proliferation of saltwater fishing tournaments have me seeing red? Shouldn't I be one of the reporters on the scene waiting to snap a photo of the winning angler?

Perhaps my attitude came about through the years I've put in championing the philosophy that fish and wildlife need to be managed from the viewpoint of what's good for fish and wildlife instead of what is desired by the humans who pursue fish and wildlife. From where I sit, saltwater fishing tournaments may have gotten way out of hand and could possibly be more harmful than beneficial to the species being sought.

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That's a judgment on my part, instead of asking a toss-up question for discussion. My viewpoint is well-established and we welcome opposing viewpoints by readers. That's the purpose of this column each month, to ask the same questions readers are asking each other over the water cooler or trolling the lakes or around a campfire.

In contrast to my opinion, this spring, more than 300 children crowded around the Knights of Columbus pond on Route 9 in Biddeford. At no cost to young anglers, and for the sponsors price of a truckload of stocked trout and prizes donated by local tackle shops the youngsters became hooked on the sport of fishing. You needed only to look at the faces of these children to understand the value of such events. And, there was no danger to the ecology of the waters being fished. The fish stocked were not capable of reproduction and grown with the intention of becoming human table-fare.

However, from where I sit, upcoming saltwater fishing contests seem to have been devoured by corporate sponsors and political action groups, leaving many of us who have devoted our lives to conservation wondering if our natural resources are now being put up for sale.

One of the largest fishing tournaments in New England is based in Maine, and offers over $70,000 in cash and prizes. Daily cash and prize awards are made for the largest striped bass, bluefish and mackerel. Also, one of the fastest growing political action groups, the Texas-based, Coastal Conservation Association has included a children's mackerel fishing division. Sounds great until you realize that each entrant is forced to become a member of their organization. This is not the same as DU and other groups charging adults a membership to attend auction dinners. Children should be treated differently.

Down the coast, a Bluefish and Striper tournament dangles a truck or boat in the faces of contestants, even though winning them is a virtual impossibility. (all-tackle IGFA, 67-pound plus striper or a bluefish weighing over 20.34 pounds are needed to win)

Other tournaments offer similar cash and prizes and, collectively, marine fisheries managers are beginning to show concern that too much pressure is being placed on the fragile resources. And, if past years conduct is any indication of this year's behavior, many of the fish entered in the contests may be wasted.

Tournament organizers will be quick to note that thousands of dollars collected from these events will benefit the needy and medical research and treatments, and I have no problem with sporting events to benefit charities. In fact, sportsmen have consistently shown fundraising leadership throughout the years, organizing inland fishing tournaments (mostly catch and release) and archery and shooting events that raise as much or more for the same causes, each without forcing a strain on the resources.

But, could it be that tournament organizers have gone off the deep end, so to speak. Targeting prolific species such as mackerel is one thing but Striped bass, on the other hand, have just recovered from a nearly fatal round of over-fishing. By targeting striped bass, some fisheries experts feel that future populations could be jeopardized.

Adding to the absurdity is the treatment of entries being brought to tournament headquarters in order to qualify for daily prizes. Does it concern conservation sponsors such as the CCA that many of the fish are tossed in a bucket on the floor of the boat, baked by the sun, most likely making their way into the compost pile instead of a meal of fresh fish?

A few of you eagle-eyes out there will remind me that I was once the Tournament Director for a fishing tournament out of Spring Point Marina in South Portland. A bit of a hypocrite, Stu?

During those years, however, saltwater angling lacked the popularity it now enjoys and it was the goal of sponsors to raise awareness of saltwater fishing opportunities. Striped bass were purposely not included in the line-up. We offered prizes for sharks over 10 feet, Bluefin tuna, groundfish,(cod were not endangered then, either) bluefish and mackerel.

We also demanded that all entrants be cooled immediately and offered free ice and fillet services, passing free fish out to anyone coming in off the street to watch the weigh-ins. Almost no fish was wasted.

Readers, do you think the time has come to demand stricter regulations for saltwater fishing tournaments, to guard against exploitation of the resources and insure that the entries are not spoiled? Just as scratch tickets and megabucks tickets must bear the approximate odds of winning, fishing tournaments should be made to note that the odds of landing an All-Tackle IGFA record in Maine is akin to winning the Tri-state Megabucks three weeks in a row.

Should emphasis should be placed on limiting the kill-for-prizes aspect of the events with no entrant should being accepted that is not fit for the table after the weigh-in. And, by all means, should we guard against any political action groups from forcing membership in their organizations upon our youths.

Fishing contests can be a valuable means by which to encourage participation in outdoor recreation. They can enhance conservation efforts and raise much needed dollars for charities. But, the Outdoor Question this month needs to be addressed. Should saltwater fishing tournaments be abolished in Maine's coastal waters?

Stu Bristol is a freelance outdoor writer living in Lyman. His weekly columns and features have been published nationwide for over 30 years.

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