Avid anglers in New England are set to ditch the beach, rig the rods and head for the open ocean in a quest to catch the largest of the toothy critters out there.

Starting Thursday and running through Saturday, dozens of boats will take part in the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament (search) off Martha's Vineyard, vying for hefty cash and other prizes like new boats.

The tournament, organized by the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, is proving enormously popular, a fact not lost on television executives. In 2004 ESPN aired the tournament on TV, (albeit on a three-month delay), and it will do the same this year, bringing a sport reserved for those along the East Coast to viewers across the United States.

But beyond the prizes and the nationally televised exposure, the anglers also get to revel in the awestruck faces of spectators when the tournament's largest catches are weighed in. And there has been no shortage of true monsters caught in recent years.

In 2004, the scales were tipped by a number of large thresher sharks, including a 548-pounder, which marked a new Massachusetts (search) state record. A number of other 300-pound-plus sharks were weighed in as well, including mako sharks and blue sharks. Many others topped the 200-pound mark.

The tournament’s most well-known catch was in 2001, when a behemoth 1,221-pound mako was caught aboard the “Dazed and Confused,” a boat captained by Chris Peters. The toothy giant was, and still is, an International Game Fish Association all-tackle record.

The tournament is not all about weigh-ins and records, however. The event is closely coordinated with a number of environmental and fisheries groups, which use the large number of fishermen and boats in the tournament as an invaluable research tool.

Organizations such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries and the Apex Predators Program (search) gain data on the sharks caught during the course of the contest.

"As scientists, we take advantage of a fishing event that grants us access to both specimens and data,” said Greg Skomal, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

But some question the ethics of the event.

“Those big sharks are a key part of the ocean, and it’s too bad to see them piled dead on the dock,” said David Goodman, a columnist for a local newspaper on neighboring Nantucket.

Goodman is careful to note, however, that he is not an expert and that if biologists see a benefit in taking the sharks for scientific purposes, then it’s probably a valid — albeit sometimes dangerous — endeavor.

It is not unheard of for fishermen looking to catch a large prize to get injured themselves. For instance, last week off the coast of Panama City in the Pacific Ocean, Stephen Schultz was struck in the head by a 600-pound black marlin that jumped into his boat.

As his sister, Alyson Schultz, videotaped the wild incident -- in the footage, the mammoth fish is shown jerking its body side to side while flying into the boat -- teenager Schultz recalled feeling disbelief and determination not to let the marlin loose.

"I really was in a position that I was not going to leave him or abandon him at that point," he said.

“It came into the boat pretty quick. ... I didn’t think it was actually going to hit me," Schultz said.

Click in the video box above to watch the marlin incident.

“I have four broken sinus wall bones in my cheek, lacerations in the side of my cheek and cuts in the back of my throat.”

Robert Schultz, who accompanied his son and daughter on the fishing expedition, said it took about two hours to return to the mainland, where arrangements were made to transport the wounded fisherman to a medical facility.

Many contend the risk is worth it to come away with such a large catch, and the New England tournament exemplifies this point, but what damage does the ecosystem endure?

Biologist Skomal acknowledges he feels somewhat torn by the sight of a large shark dead on the docks. Most of the largest animals are female and at the heart of the breeding stock, which is essential to future populations of sharks.

Nevertheless, Skomal says that while "a handful of sharks are dying in this tournament, we're ultimately learning enough from the data gathered during the event to save them in the long run. If I felt otherwise, I wouldn't be involved."

The number of sharks caught and released in the tournament far surpasses those killed. Of roughly 1,700 sharks caught last year, only 50 were killed, according to Skomal. And of those released, approximately 150 were tagged for scientific purposes, an action that the tournament encourages with a prize category for number of sharks tagged.