Even on an Island that knows a little something about shark hysteria, the upcoming Boston Big Game Fishing Club Monster Shark tournament is a frenzied event.
Now in it's 19th year, the Monster Shark tournament has found its own space on the Oak Bluffs summer calendar, behind the fireworks and Illumination Night. During the second week of July, sport fishermen from far and wide descend on Oak Bluffs to take part in the tournament - a two-day event in which contestants vie for over $200,000 in prizes, including a new fishing boat worth over $125,000.
In the past five years the event has ballooned far beyond its New England roots. Over 200 boats from around the East Coast are expected to jam harbors around the Island this weekend, from the tournament's home base in Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven and, for the first time, Menemsha. The cable sports network ESPN, which last year put 15 cameramen on four boats and a helicopter to produce a four-part series on the tournament, is back again, this time with a bigger crew and an additional helicopter. An even larger throng of spectators is expected to descend on the harbor to catch a glimpse of the sharks that are landed.
"It is the Super Bowl of shark fishing tournaments, no question about it," Steve James, the president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, said last week. "I think this year will push it over the edge of being the largest of its kind in the world."
But the tournament's increased popularity, fueled in part by its national exposure, has brought with it a wave of discontent. Critics of the tournament are also circling the boats, raising concerns that range from the impact on the town to the conduct of contestants to the ethics of shark fishing itself. And some are asking: Does the Vineyard need this tournament?
"This weekend we'll be subjected to another round of low evolutionary behavior as we string up another ancient fish, another monster from the deep, bleeding and dead, hanging dishonored before the mob, drunk with alcohol and cheering thoughtlessness," writes James D'Ambrosio in an op-ed published on the Commentary page in today's Gazette. "And why do we do it? Because we can."
Mr. D'Ambrosio is one voice in a rising chorus of discomfort with the two-day event. Complaints about public drunkenness, loud music and the tasteless display of dismembered sharks have increased with the tournament's popularity. Some wonder whether killing sharks should be sanctioned at all.
Others say the event has grown too large. At the regular meeting of the Oak Bluffs selectmen on Tuesday, board chairman Gregory Coogan expressed concern about the expanding tournament, suggesting it may have outgrown the already-crammed harbor.
"I think when we first started this we said so many boats, but now boats are leaving from Vineyard Haven and Edgartown,"Mr. Coogan said. "I think that next year we need to rethink this."
At one board meeting last month, selectman Roger Wey grilled Mr. James about the amount of money he donates to the town for its role in hosting the tournament. Mr. James, who was applying for a special liquor license for the weekend, said his contributions last year included $1,000 to the Oak Bluffs parks commission, $500 to Sail Martha's Vineyard, and $1,725 for the Oak Bluffs patrol boat. But that did not satisfy Mr. Wey.
"I think the town should receive more compensation from this tournament," he said. "I am not sure this is right for Oak Bluffs."
Some public criticism has been focused on the behavior associated with the tournament's contestants and the indignity of killing sharks for sport. Last year, many expressed outrage at images of severed shark heads propped up on the bulkhead, some with sunglasses on and with beer cans perched inside their jaws. Excessive drinking and loud parties on many of the boats is also seen as a problem.
That perception of drunk, unruly fisherman taking over the harbor is one Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander is hoping will be erased this year. Mr. Alexander said the town has taken steps this year to control inappropriate behavior.
"There will be zero tolerance for any boats that are out of control or making too much noise," Mr. Alexander said. "The rules will be strictly enforced this year, and I expect everything will be fine."
Also new this year is a rule forbidding the display of sharks or parts of sharks on the bulkhead. Violators will immediately lose their slip and be banned from next year's competition, Mr. Alexander said.
But for Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries biologist Greg Skomal, who studies every shark that is brought in to be weighed, the weekend is more about the science than the slaughter.
"Whether or not it is okay to kill sharks for sport, that's a philosophical discussion," he said. "And as far as the conservation aspect is concerned, this event would not be held if the sharks were in any trouble.
"People have to remember that this is a fishing contest," Mr. Skomal said. "How can you condone the striped bass and bluefish derby and not the Monster Shark tournament?"
Mr. Skomal said the tournament provides data that forms a basis for the state's shark management policy. Along with a research team of state and national fisheries management experts, he extracts samples and performs autopsies on each fish brought in to be weighed.
"The sharks give us almost everything we need in terms of vital information," said Dr. Nancy Kohler, a marine biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Narragansett, R.I. "We get to look into many different areas, from age and growth to reproductive and feeding habits to migration. We have gotten much needed biological information from this tournament."
What each boat releases over the two days is just as important to biologists as what comes in. Unlike other tournaments, the Monster Shark tournament requires each boat to record total catch information - a log of every shark caught and released during the two days. The log - which recorded almost 2,500 sharks last year - helps biologists gauge critical information about the general health of the different populations.
"This lets us generate on an annual basis a relative abundance index, to chart over the years the general health of various shark populations," Mr. Skomal said. "It's a rough cross section, but because it is done every year, we are able to understand any trends, and that is very important in managing them."
Mr. Skomal said recent shark tournaments have given biologists reams of information on the thresher shark. In years past the thresher had been caught with far greater infrequency, but lately it has been some of the more common sharks reeled in. Information obtained from the fish helped create a growth curve that the state now uses to manage the population.
It's a fact Mr. James is quick to emphasize.
"This is not shark extermination weekend on Martha's Vineyard," he said. "I am waste deep in fisheries management and conservation, and I think the limits and regulations we place have in place reflect that."
In fact, Mr. James' tournament features some of the strictest rules of any shark tournament. He has kept the minimum entry weight far higher than weights accepted under the state fisheries management guidelines, and this year he increased the minimums. For example, this year a blue shark must be 300 pounds or more to qualify for weigh-in. Last year the limit was 275 pounds, still more than 50 to 100 pounds greater than other tournaments.
"We have made this tournament significantly tougher because as much as anyone, we don't want to see smaller sharks needlessly killed," he said. "We have really emphasized that."
The weight limits are lower for other types of sharks: Mako, thresher and porbeagle sharks require only a 200-pound minimum.
Boats that bring in sharks weighing less than the minimums are penalized 100 points.
Mr. James is also leading an effort to tag sharks released back into the water with special satellite-linked archival tags. The tags will help biologists track the fish throughout the year. And while Mr. James acknowledged a public relations challenge with the tournament, he stressed that he will continue to try to make the event work for everyone.
"We are very concerned about how this tournament is perceived, and I don't want to see the stupid stuff either," Mr. James said. "There are great benefits to the research involved and all of the meat from the sharks that are caught is donated to charity. It's not just about needlessly killing sharks."