In a scene reminiscent of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the crew of the offshore fishing boat Sensation hauled in a massive blue marlin sure to score them wealth and esteem, only to have their hopes dashed when tournament officials discovered that their 619.4-lb catch had been mutilated in two areas, likely as a result of shark bites.
Despite surpassing the next closest blue marlin by 134.9 pounds, those bites cost the crew a staggering $3.5 million, as they would have won first prize and a separate bonus prize for securing the first blue marlin over 500 pounds in Morehead City, North Carolina’s Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament.
In its 65th year, “the Big Rock,” as it is known by locals, drew a record 271 boats, and the additional entry fees meant more prize money was at stake in the tournament than ever before. Indeed, the $5,835,075 in overall prize money represented one of the largest purses in billfishing history.
Just after 2 p.m. EST on Saturday, the last day of the six-day event, the crew of Sensation decided to throw out the lines one final time. The fish had to be hooked by 3 p.m. to be eligible for prize money, and the crew could feel the last grains of sand slipping down the hourglass.
Then, at 2:15 p.m., word came over the radio that Sensation had hooked something.
“Not 30 feet off the back of the boat, this big monster marlin breaches the water and crashes on our right side short line and bites the hook and just tears off like a horse running across the field,” Sensation owner Ashley Bleau recounted.
Sensing they might be onto a potential winner, the crew reeled in their other lines and focused on the single rod and reel. The crew had predetermined time slots for each member, and the lucky hour belonged to angler Bailey Gore.
Gore helmed the fighter’s chair for what would amount to a six-hour chase, as the fish struggled courageously to elude him. In the end, Gore and the Sensation crew outlasted the sea giant, and shortly before sunset, the crew dragged the gigantic blue marlin into the boat.
As they neared the shore after 10 p.m., the biggest crowd ever assembled at Big Rock Landing, who had been following the Sensation’s chase via the Big Rock tournament live feed, erupted into cheers, clapping and shouting to the crew.
"Y’all, if it weighs more than 500 pounds, they’re going to win three-and-a-half million dollars,” announcer Tommy Bennett told the frenzied crowd.
The crew beamed as they backed into the landing. A fish this big; in a multimillion-dollar tournament; on the last cast of the last day. And now, a chorus of support and glee from the community and fishing world at-large.
So when they hauled the glistening blue, black, and gray beast of the deep ocean onto the dock of the Morehead City waterfront and lifted the creature by its tail—demonstrably, a much larger fish than any other fish caught in the tournament—the crew frothed with joy amid a fresh outburst of jubilance from the crowd.
Moments later, however, Bennett’s voice came on the loudspeaker: “Okay guys, let’s talk about, uh, the rules here for a second.”
A long pause ensued as the crowd began to whistle and murmur, and then, Bennett’s voice could again be heard: “It would appear that this fish has been bitten by a shark.”
“Hang here just a second,” Bennett continued, trying to assuage the confused crowd. “And we’ll get it sorted out here in just a second.”
The Tournament Committee’s Ruling
The next morning, tournament officials released a statement, officially disqualifying the blue marlin caught by Sensation due to mutilation and declaring the 484.5-lb. blue marlin caught by Sushi as the winner.
“After careful deliberation and discussions between the Big Rock Rules Committee and Board of Directors with biologists from both NC State CMAST and NC Marine Fisheries biologists as well as an IGFA official, it was determined that Sensation’s 619.4-lb blue marlin is disqualified due to mutilation caused by a shark or other marine animal,” the statement reads. “It was deemed that the fish was mutilated before it was landed or boated and therefore it was disqualified.”
Though the Sushi crew missed out on the more than $739,500 bonus prize offered to the first boat to catch a blue marlin weighing more than 500 pounds, they still raked in an astounding $2,769,438.
Greg McCoy, the captain of Sensation, was devastated by the ruling.
“We went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows,” McCoy told CNN on Tuesday. “It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
“We followed all the rules,” he continued. “There was nothing nefarious or cheating or anything like that on our part.”
“We feel like it was taken away from us,” he lamented.
By 11 a.m. Sunday morning, Bleau had already filed a protest with the Tournament Rules Committee and retained legal representation, along with the boat’s captain and crew, with the Wheatley Law Group.
If unsuccessful in the initial protest, tournament rules dictate that Bleau and the crew must first attempt to resolve the case with a mediator. If still unable to reach an agreement, they will have to arbitrate the case under the North Carolina Revised Uniform Arbitration Act.
The Mutilation Rule
As stated in Number 23 of the Big Rock rules, participants are subject to the International Game Fishing Association’s (IGFA) rule on mutilation, which states:
“Mutilation to the fish, prior to landing or boating the catch, caused by sharks, other fish, mammals, or propellers that remove or penetrate the flesh. Injuries caused by leader or line, scratches, old healed scars or regeneration deformities are not considered to be disqualifying injuries.”
IGFA Marketing Director Jack Vitek explained that the spirit of the mutilation rule is to ensure that the blue marlin is at full capacity, as to set a standard for a fair fight between the fish and angler.
“[I]f a fish has a chunk taken out of it, whether it be by a boat or another fish or shark or whatever, it’s not going to be fighting to its full potential,” Vitek reasoned.
Reactions to the Committee’s Ruling
Given the extravagant amount at stake and the tournament’s bizarre ending, the story quickly drew national media attention, garnering coverage from NPR, The New York Post, and The Washington Post, among others.
Bleau seized the opportunity to broadcast his appeal to a larger audience.
During a Tuesday interview with Pirate Radio TV, Bleau called the damage to the fish “superficial.”
“It was less than the size of my hand,” Bleau claimed. “To say that it was a detriment to our ability to bring it in, it was an advantage for us to bring it in—it was not.”
Zack Stroupe, a member of the Sushi crew, sympathized with the Sensation team, but agreed with the tournament committee’s decision.
“You know, I hate it for the team, but other boats have been in that position many times,” Stroupe said. “It’s not the first time.”
To Captain Nathan Newlin, a local professional fisherman who captained the Annie O in this year’s tournament, the matter was an “easy decision.”
“It is a rule, it’s been a rule for a long time,” he said. “Cut and dry decision.”
He admitted that he, too, would be devastated by the tournament’s ruling, but ultimately he would not protest because the rule on mutilation is clear.
“The rules are set,” stated Newlin. “If you don’t want to play by them, then don’t enter the tournament.”
Newlin, who has fished “about 20” Big Rock tournaments, said mutilation does not come up every year, but he has seen disqualification due to mutilation in previous Big Rock tournaments.
He added that the mutilation rule is not unique to the Big Rock.
“Most tournaments are going to have a mutilated fish rule,” he explained.
Bleau has decided to challenge the ruling, meaning the matter could be tied up in mediation and arbitration for months, or even years, before it is resolved.
Tournament Officials Address the Backlash
In the wake of the viral media attention, Big Rock officials posted a video on its Facebook account on Wednesday, providing further details on its decision.
Emery Ivey, President of the Board of Directors of the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, first explained the mutilation rule, before showing images of the two bite marks on the Sensation’s blue marlin.
Ivey then compared Sensation’s fish with the 2019 record-setting winner caught by Top Dog, which had also sustained damage.
“The difference in the two, the Sensation, their situation specifically happened while they were fighting the fish,” Ivey expounded. “The Top Dog’s fish happened when they brought the fish on the boat.”
“So the fish was already boated, the game was already over, and they couldn’t have acquired any penalties, because they had already boated the fish,” Ivey concluded.
The Future of Deterring Mutilation
Naturally, many are left to wonder how to prevent this sort of mutilation in the future. Whether millions of dollars are on the line, or just a blue marlin, that is a prize worth protecting.
As touted in a recent piece by Florida Sportsman, along with a litany of other reputable sources, Sharkbanz’ Zeppelin has emerged as a promising innovation in the world of anglers when it comes to deterring mutilation by sharks.
The device emits an electromagnetic field that deters sharks and rays, but not other fish, thereby providing a helpful shield against the mutilation of hooked fish.