Tournaments, Rules and Disqualifications

Times have changed—but for the better?

dennis friel illustration of a marlin and boats at sunset
With millions of dollars on the line, the pressure is not only on the crews and anglers but also on the tournament directors, the observers and the video-review judges, along with the tournament committee.Dennis Friel

Who would have thought that I would ever be on a tournament committee, much less be the director or even the president of a series of events? I was always the mate or captain in the back of the room, making too much noise during the rules meetings. Now I run the Custom Shootout with more than 50 boats and a long waiting list, plus several other events.

Looking back at so many old tournaments, billfish were always brought back to the dock because nobody would ever believe you actually released a marlin or sailfish. Back then, many tournaments were held during the slow times of year to help out the charter boats and keep the crews busy. For example, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had only two big events each year — one in April and one in October — when the tourists left.

Once these tournaments became successful, others took off; now, you can fish one every weekend if you want to.

Whether it’s a marlin or sailfish tournament or a fun-fish event or now even ladies’ tournaments, they have all become more popular than ever. There was once even a native tournament in Bimini, Bahamas, that turned into a huge event open to the public at the end. With so many tournaments, the rules started to grow, and they all had some problems because they had to rewrite the rules with an attorney’s input to reduce liability and exposure. These days at least we can just copy the rules from other events off their websites.

Recently, we have heard of team disqualifications and lawsuits filed. This has to  be a tournament director’s worst nightmare, especially because there’s no way to get event insurance that would cover all the exposure. And to get sued personally? That’s even worse. With the amount of money to win or lose, the pressure is really on to make sure there are no problems during or after an event.

We went from dead fish on the dock to observers and videos and it seems now with GPS and the other boats near you, we should be able to have fun and avoid all the controversy. Now the rules are really changing, too. There are some tournaments that do not allow paid crews — professionals — to fish as anglers, and we now need a two-paragraph explanation just to define the meaning of a professional.

With millions of dollars on the line, the pressure is not only on the crews and anglers but also on the tournament directors, the observers and the video-review judges, along with the tournament committee. Who knows where the suing stops? It seems that problems arise from tournaments having too many rules, from the events that use polygraph exams to the many video disqualifications to using observers that need to make the calls on the spot, then report what they witnessed to the tournament directors when they get back to the docks.

Now boats get disqualified because of professional versus amateur anglers. In the insurance business, it is much harder to deny a claim than to pay the claim. In a tournament, if you do not disqualify the boat in question, you lose the respect of the other competitors and the tournament falters unless a new director is appointed.

I’ve been very lucky with the competitors in my events, because they have all disqualified themselves when there has been a problem with the video fish-identification process. Those hatchet marlin look a lot like blue marlin when looking at their dorsal fins, but the underwater footage shows rounded anal fins. Then there are camera failures, or operators’ failures to get the shots in the first place.

And there is the scenario when a boat is disqualified in one tournament: Do you let the team fish in your event? That’s a good question, and one I know I will surely be faced with one day.

Personally, I like the big fish on the dock concept — but then the conservationists beat you up. Where does the controversy end?