Large Crowds Gather for Monster Catch, Children in Tow
Marcus Benker, 11, of Holyoke, had never seen a live shark prior to the Boston Big Game Fishing Club's Monster Shark Tournament in Oak Bluffs this weekend.
So when he first glimpsed a 321-pound blue shark on Saturday strapped to the back of the Melissa Kate, a fishing boat out of Scituate, he studied its lifeless eye, its rows of razor sharp teeth and its streamlined body and wondered aloud if he was looking at the real thing.
"It looks so fake. Is that thing even real?" he asked.
His younger sister, Kelli, age eight, was also inquisitive.
"Is that a boy shark or a girl shark? Is it a grown-up, or just a baby?"
An hour later, Marcus was one of hundreds of children and adults gathered around metal barricades at the tournament weigh station at Our Market, jockeying for a view of the sharks as they were hauled off the boats and into full view.
As one shark appeared over the lip of the harbor, the crowd roared with approval. Minutes later, when the shark was cut open from head to tail, revealing its internal organs, Marcus had no doubt he was looking at the real thing.
"Oh, man . . . that is awesome!" he said, unfazed by the sight of innards spilling onto the dock.
His sister was far less impressed.
"Ewwww . . . . that's gross," she said, covering her eyes.
Their father, Benjamin, put his arm around Kelli and, in a profound moment of parenting, tried to explain why the sharks were being cut open in such a public manner.
"That's what happens in life," he said, a half smile on his face as he searched for an explanation. "Sometimes you eat the shark, and sometimes the shark eats you."
While Mr. Benker (who was wearing a PETA T-shirt - short for People Eating Tasty Animals) was clearly simplifying the issue, he was also like most people on Saturday who had little or no problem with the ethics of the tournament.
This year's tournament was buffeted by criticism from the United States Humane Society and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but the conflict anticipated over the weekend from demonstrators was largely unremarkable.
And, as in years past, most spectators appeared thrilled.
When a 323-pound porbeagle shark was lifted from the deck of the Lady Diana, based out of Galveston, Tex., the reaction was like one you might find following a long home run at a baseball game or during a fireworks display.
Michael Reardon, a 37-year-old contractor from Bloomfield, Conn., hoisted his eight-year-old son, Liam, onto his shoulders so he could catch a better glimpse of the fish. Mr. Reardon, who was wearing a T-shirt depicting a large cartoon shark with huge teeth, said the tournament was educational for both children and adults.
"After the tournament last year, [Liam] kept talking about sharks. We watched a bunch of shows during [Discovery Channel's] shark week, and he wanted to come back," he said, adding:
"I don't think this is cruel at all. It's an opportunity for us to learn about these animals."
But not everyone agreed.
Sharon Young, a marine issues field director for the Cape and Islands chapter of the humane society, said hanging the sharks from the piers and cutting them open for the public was barbaric, and sent the wrong message.
"It's cruel. And it's sad. And it's just wrong. This whole event promotes the idea that we shouldn't care about sharks, which is the farthest from the truth," she said.
Last winter the humane society launched an aggressive campaign to stop the tournament, placing graphic advertisements in Island newspapers and on its Web site.
Criticism of the event increased substantially three years ago when the national sports network ESPN decided to broadcast the tournament.
Ms. Young was among several humane society and MSPCA officials in Oak Bluffs this past weekend who encouraged people to protest the shark tournament. The group set up a booth in Post Office Square where people could sign a petition urging selectmen to end the town's affiliation with the tournament.
As of late Saturday afternoon, several hundred people had signed the petition.
Reaction, Ms. Young said, was mostly positive. While some people approached the booth and argued the tournament was good for business, even more stopped to sign the petition and offer their support.
"For the most part, the people have been great, even the ones that don't necessarily agree with us. We've had a lot of young children stop by and ask what they can do to shave the sharks. We've even started a separate petition for young adults and children," she said.
Fearing potential problems with litter and confrontations with fishermen, selectmen last month agreed to confine the protestors to the square. The humane society had planned a fly-over by a plane towing a protest banner, but called off the flight due to high winds.
An inflatable boat with a protest sign could be seen cruising through the harbor, although Oak Bluffs police kept the boat from getting close to the weigh station, and kept it away from the fishing boats. On both Friday and Saturday, there was no visible presence by either the humane society or the MSCPA near the weigh station.
John Grandy, a biologist and vice president for the humane society, said he was disgusted by the spectacle of the tournament but also encouraged by the response to the humane society's presence.
Mr. Grandy said it was especially cruel that the last shark, a 482-pound thresher shark landed by the Connecticut boat Clan McGregor that took the grand prize, was still breathing when it was brought onto the pier.
Tournament organizer Steven James defended the merits of the event throughout the weekend, among other things emphasizing that the sharks targeted in the tournament do not appear on any endangered species lists.
He also used his role as emcee to educate the audience about the different breeds of sharks. He explained that the thresher shark, for example, has a long attachment to its tail it uses like a bull whip to whack and stun smaller fish.
Although sometimes gory, there was a substantial educational component to the tournament on display at the weigh station.
Marine scientist Lisa Natanson cut into the belly of one shark and pulled out the contents of his stomach, which included the backbone of a partially digested fish. She also cut out the heart of a mako shark and held it out for two young boys crouched behind the metal barricade.
"It looks like it's still beating," said one of the boys.
"No, it's not moving. That's just my hand shaking," she responded.
Ms. Natanson cut away backbone samples to measure age and growth, weighed the stomach contents to study the shark's diet and measured the female shark's eggs and uterus to learn more about the reproductive system.
At one point, the tail of a thresher shark was cut off and carried around so the audience could touch it.
"See, if you drag your hand one way you can feel that it is smooth. But if you drag your hand another way it is rough and coarse," Mr. James said.
Doug Loughrey, a program manager with ESPN, said the tournament was regarded as one of the top sport fishing tournaments in the country and provides valuable specimens and data for scientists and shark researchers. He said he respected the right of groups such as the humane society to protest the event, but warned they need to be more accurate in their campaigns.
The humane society Web site recently posted an article stating that thousands of sharks died in last year's tournament, he said.
"If thousands of sharks were killed we certainly wouldn't have anything to do with the event. I think they should try to be a little more accurate with their facts. Well over 90 per cent of the sharks caught both last year and this year will be released," he said.
Crew members on the fishing vessels said they did not understand why the humane society had chosen to protest what they viewed as a simple fishing tournament.
"There is nothing wrong with the tournament. We do it every year, and everyone involved has nothing but respect for the sharks and for the Island," said Luke Cantella, the captain of the Due Diligence out of Humarock, adding:
"Every year, it brings in the top fishermen. It brings in the visitors. It brings in the business. And the fishermen love coming here because it's such a great place. I don't know why some people would want to ruin a good thing."