The Ocean City Shark Tournament has been part of the summer landscape for 26 years. A 1,210-pound tiger shark caught in the competition's third year is displayed in a boardwalk museum.
But the nation's largest animal-rights group wants to make sure the 27th annual tournament -- which begins Thursday -- is the last.
With newspaper advertisements, banners and a letter-writing campaign to the Ocean City mayor and City Council, the Humane Society of the United States is calling for an end to the three-day contest, which attracts several hundred anglers and an even larger crowd of spectators at the daily weigh-in.
First prize is $3,000, but by entering additional skill levels the winning angler can push the total above $20,000.
John Grandy, a senior vice president of the group, says shark fishing techniques are barbaric and that the tournament harms the dwindling populations of thresher, blue and mako sharks.
"We're talking about killing sharks for fun and money. What does this say to our children?" says Grandy, who has not ruled out a demonstration at the weigh-in.
The humane society also is pressuring the organizers of three shark tournaments on the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y., and one on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Mark Sampson, the Ocean City tournament's founder and a longtime charter-boat captain, says his rules are stricter than those imposed under federal fishing regulations. As a result, he says, an average of 80 sharks are released offshore and 20 sharks are brought to the scales.
"The bottom line is even if our tournament was 100 percent catch and release, the humane society would still be here protesting. These sharks are not on the endangered species list. So, the tournament comes to an end. So, 20 sharks didn't die this year. That's a drop in the bucket," says Sampson, who helps the federal government with shark research.
In February, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources added the common thresher, the mako and the blue shark to its list of threatened species. Those three were the only sharks killed in the past two years of the tournament.
However, the National Marine Fisheries Service has not placed those species on its list of 19 protected sharks that are off-limits to anglers.
Last season, the humane society attended the tournament and took video of the weigh-in, where giant sharks were hoisted by a crane with a digital scale attached.
Grandy says children were encouraged to stand close to the dead sharks and laugh about their demise.
"I'm challenging Mark Sampson to stop this. He says he's a conservationist; he should prove it," Gandy says.
But Sampson says his rules set a 6-foot minimum length for those brought to shore and do not allow a group of anglers to enter more than one thresher shark and one blue shark during their two days of tournament fishing. Further, anglers can earn points for released sharks.
"Sure, there's going to be a few bad eggs, as in anything," Sampson says. "But guys go to great lengths to release sharks. They don't bring them in just to hang them up for the crowd."
Anglers who don't want to keep their sharks can donate the meat to a local food bank.
Ocean City Mayor Richard W. Meehan says the Council is aware of the controversy but has taken no action, hoping the two sides will be able to work out their differences.
"I was a bit surprised by the humane society's letter because of the diligence by the tournament and the anglers to protect the species," he says. "Hopefully, there will be some dialogue."
Besides, the mayor says, there's not much the city leaders can do. The weigh-in is in West Ocean City, outside the jurisdiction of the Council.