WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A shark fishing tournament in Palm Beach County is creating a frenzy online.
A web-based petition is calling for the July 9 tournament to be canceled. However, fishermen are defending the event.
More than 49,000 people have signed the petition on Change.org, saying the event "fosters a lack of respect for sharks and their essential role in keeping our underwater ecosystems healthy and balanced."
Rayna O'Nan of Ocean Rays Photography is an underwater photographer and diver who is speaking out against the event. She takes people from Riviera Beach out to swim with the sharks.
"We are scared of the damage to the ecosystem that this tournament will do," O'Nan said. "Sharks are incredibly important. They are apex predators that control the populations from the top down."
While many believe the tournament is cruel and unnecessary, local fishermen say they are hoping to bring attention to a surging population of sharks that are targeting their catch, threatening their industry.
Tournament organizer Jason Warbird — who would only gave WPTV his Facebook name — said he's receiving threats.
"It's not even going to put a dent in the actual population that's out there," Warbird said. "We're only targeting the bull sharks species for the scale. Other than that, we also have a release division for the tournament. ... We're pushing really hard for a lot of releases."
Warbird said sharks in this area are too numerous and aggressive, threatening his line of work.
"We can't get anything to the boat now without it getting taken by a shark," he said.
The tournament has received all the necessary approvals from the government.
"This is not what they're claiming it to be," Warbird said. "They're putting accusations and assumptions out there that we're going to be poaching illegal species like great white sharks, whale sharks, so on and so forth when that's not the case."
Warbird said there are about 40 boats participating in the tournament and it keeps growing.
Opponents have a scheduled a Saturday protest that will be held at foot of the Blue Heron Bridge in Riviera Beach.