By Emma Betuel
In 10 years, no one will remember who won the 31st annual Star Island Shark Tournament in Montauk, said Elliot Gershowitz, one of the owners of Star Island Yacht Club and a tournament director. Instead, the talk of the tournament this weekend was a mako shark weighing 780 pounds, caught by a Montauk fishing vessel named The Professional Cryer.
Caught in whitecapped conditions that deterred many boats from venturing out on Saturday — only 93 boats registered for the tournament this year — the crew aboard The Professional Cryer caught their mako 12 miles off the coast of Montauk. They hooked it about 4 p.m., two hours before the tournament deadline of 6 p.m. The mako fought for an hour and fifteen minutes, leaving the crew just 45 minutes to get their prize-winning fish past the finish line at the entrance to Lake Montauk.
By 6 p.m., Gershowitz got a call on his radio: The Cryer was towing back a massive shark, but there was no way it would make it back to port in time to qualify for the tournament.
“It’s a memory,” said Gershowitz, who gave the crew a courtesy weigh-in around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. “They were stoked because fishing is all about the experience. Nobody is going to remember who won this tournament 10 years from now, but everybody is going to remember that 780-pound fish that was too late.”
The winner of the tournament was another mako, weighing in at 453 pounds, caught aboard the local Montauk boat, Gotta Go, captained by John Levitt of Sagaponack. The minimum weight for a mako to qualify for the tournament is 125 pounds.
In the past decade, fishermen catching thresher sharks have the most tournament wins — taking six of the last 11 titles. But mako sharks have taken the grand prize the last two years, with both weighing over 450 pounds.
Last year, Captain Dave Meberg of Huntington and his crew aboard The Thor III made history by bringing in a 730-pound mako worth $30,000. Capt. Meberg now has the mako’s jaws — which are over one foot wide — mounted in his home in Huntington.
“We fought it for three hours. The fish was so big, we had to fight it with the boat,” Meberg said. “Everybody was on edge, it was like three hours of tension. It’s just one of those things where it’s the fish of a lifetime.”
The competitors at Star Island are insistent that shark fishing is a team sport. Like positions on a football or baseball team, each member of the crew has a specialized job to help bring in a prizewinner.
“It is really a team sport, and that’s the best part,” said Meberg. “There’s one guy driving the boat, one guy with the gaff, one guy with the wire, one guy on the rod and reel. When you get into a tournament like this, everybody on the boat has a job.”
In addition to the sporting aspect of the shark tournament, the directors are adamant that competitions like these play a role in shark conservation and education. Sport fishing and marine conservation “are not at odds,” according to Lisa Natanson, a researcher at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA).
Three years ago, the tournament made it mandatory that anglers use circular non-stainless steel hooks that rust in saltwater — allowing sharks that escape during the fight to get off the hook naturally. Many sport fishermen also take part in NOAA’s volunteer tagging program by placing tracking devices on smaller sharks that they catch and release.
“In order to do a study, we need the whole size range of the species,” she added. “If we can get the big ones here where they’re going to get caught anyway, great. This helps us quite a bit.”
Researchers like Natanson often do the full shark tournament circuit each summer. The Star Island Tournament was the beginning of her summer season, and serves as a kickoff for the summer sport fishing season in Montauk.
Full tournament results can be found at starislandyc.com.