To many people in this country and across the world, Martha’s Vineyard is shark central.
And here at shark central, a tradition continues this weekend in the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament which in recent years has generated controversy.
Thousands of people are expected to pack the tournament weigh station near Our Market this afternoon and tomorrow; there will also be visible signs of protest from groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In its early days the shark tournament was a low-key affair, largely viewed as a harmless fishing competition that attracted some of the top fisherman from up and down the East Coast while generating a moderate boost in business for local shops and restaurants. But when ESPN began broadcasting the event four years ago, the tournament was suddenly exposed to a worldwide audience. Interest in — and criticism of — the tournament escalated. It became a target for animal rights groups.
Over the past two years, the Humane Society of the United States launched an aggressive campaign to oppose the shark tournament, placing graphic advertisements in Island newspapers and on its Web site while encouraging protesters to personally contact town officials to air their concerns.
After staying out of the fray for years, the Oak Bluffs selectmen this year voted 3-2 to enact a new policy to prohibit one-day liquor licenses for all future shark tournaments, effectively ending the town’s long relationship with the tournament. Tournament organizer Steven James of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club has since moved the event’s headquarters to the Lampost nightclub on Circuit avenue.
Mr. James criticized the selectmen after they voted to deny the liquor license, pointing to a nonbinding vote at town meeting last year where a majority of voters said they supported the town continuing to provide space for the tournament headquarters. He accused selectmen of discriminating against sport fishermen and threatened legal action against the town.
Mr. James was unavailable for comment this week.
Earlier this month, John W. Grandy, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States, sent a letter to Mr. James asking him to cancel the tournament.
Mr. James claims that nonprofit groups like the Humane Society exaggerate the facts about the tournament.
Local feelings about the shark tournament continue to be mixed.
Wendy Benchley, the widow of author Peter Benchley who wrote the novel Jaws and the screenplay for the movie adaptation, visited the Oak Bluffs selectmen in March to criticize the shark tournament and ask that the town end its involvement in the event.
Ms. Benchley said in the decades following his novel’s publication, Mr. Benchley was an active proponent of shark protection who worked to convince people that sharks were more victims of overfishing then they are monsters of the deep. In a conversation with the Gazette following the meeting, Mrs. Benchley said she was horrified to learn the Vineyard hosts one of the larger shark tournaments in the country.
“We have come such a long way in understanding the damage we are doing to the ocean and the role sharks play since Jaws came out,” she said. “As you may know, fish populations have crashed and there are indications that certain species of sharks are heading toward collapse if humans don’t start to fish in sustainable ways. Shark tournaments such as yours harm the cause of shark conservation.”
Mr. Grandy this week said the Humane Society will once again have an information booth at post office square off Circuit avenue where people can sign a petition protesting the event and collect information about shark conservation. He said there will be some low-key protests, including an aerial banner in back of a biplane that will fly over the harbor.
“I think the opportunity has presented itself for the Vineyard to help change people’s opinions about sharks, which is not without irony. The Island can draw the line in the sand and say ‘no more of this.’ These contests glorify the incredible suffering and horrific deaths of some of the ocean’s most fascinating and least understood creatures, and we will not tolerate it anymore,” he said.
Grandy Nigel Barker, world-renowned photographer and judge on America’s Next Top Model, will join the Humane Society this weekend in documenting the event.
But some feel the protests do more damage then good. Selectman Gregory Coogan, one of the two selectmen to vote against the motion to deny the liquor license for the tournament, said there are plenty of people who view the event simply as a fishing tournament which brings in customers and boosts business.
And after hearing repeated criticism of the event in recent years, which included an aggressive campaign by the Humane Society that encouraged people to personally call selectmen at their homes to air their protests, Mr. Coogan said he is frankly tired of the subject.
“I am sick of talking about it and sick of hearing about it. We have more important problems as a town to spend our time on. If you ask me the voters have already spoken on this issue, they took a vote and they said they wanted it around. I personally don’t get into fishing, but I understand this is a money maker for the town and many people feel it is interesting and educational,” he said, adding:
“But frankly it’s just a tired subject.”