In the wake of the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill, many of the top fishing events in the gulf have been postponed or canceled. Those in recreational fishing regard the sport as a key part of the region’s economy. Industry-financed studies estimate that the annual number of day trips on boats to fish in the gulf is 23.5 million, in addition to millions fishing from the shoreline. Although a small percentage of boating anglers compete in offshore tournaments, they are among the biggest spenders.
One of the largest tournaments is the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic sports fishing tournament in the Gulf of Mexico. Operating out of the Sandestin Resort in Destin, Florida, each team pays $5,000 to enter the two-day Emerald Coast competition, and the fees can reach more than $50,000 depending on the categories it competes in.
This tournament is ranked by Marlin magazine as having the gulf’s richest purse, reaching a peak of $1.5 million in 2008, but just five days before the tournament’s start the spreading BP oil spill forced its cancellation. The breaking point came when oil spread into the waters off the Florida Panhandle last week, leading to intermittent closures of a waterway that leads to deeper water. The federal authorities also widened the area closed to fishing. About half a dozen other key tournaments in June and July have also been canceled.
The World Billfish Series and the International Game Fishing Association, the two major offshore fishing series, choose top competitors from qualifying tournaments around the world. They will have to adjust their process for selecting the gulf fishing teams for their championships.
The Billfish Series championship in December will ge held in Costa Rica. It plans to invite last year’s top competitors in the gulf and will also allow those who just missed qualifying to enter.
The game fishing association runs its championship in Mexico. Dan Jacobs, the tournament director, said it was considering allowing those from the gulf who qualified last year to enter. It may also allow fishing clubs like Emerald Coast to designate representatives.
Previous tournaments that were canceled or postponed stretch from Pensacola, Fla., to Mobile Bay, Ala., Biloxi, Miss, and Venice, La. But the cancellations may benefit other competitions. Several teams unable to take part in gulf tournaments planned to compete in events in Bermuda and elsewhere.
In sport fishing competitions, teams essentially bet on who will catch particular kinds of fish. The prize money is divided among top finishers. In catch-and-release categories, teams document the number of fish they catch. Other winners are determined by the weight of individual fish brought to shore.
The number of anglers competing in the gulf has increased fivefold in the last decade, rising to about 5,000 people a year. The growth has led to more tournaments, including the Emerald Coast competition, which started seven years ago.
Along with devastating the commercial fishing industry in the gulf, the oil spill is crippling the business of offshore recreational sport fishing. Offshore fishing, including tournaments, is worth $1.9 billion a year to the gulf region, based on an American Sportfishing Association’s financed analysis of spending on items like hotels, docking and gear. The group said that millions of dollars have been lost.