Citing unruly crowds and a drain on town resources, Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday called for changes to the annual Monster Shark tournament held at the Oak Bluffs harbor, including a greater police presence and working more closely with event organizers.
But selectmen voted against putting a petition to change the tournament to catch-and-release only on next year’s town election ballot, which will require petitioners to gather support from 10 per cent of registered voters.
The annual Monster Shark Tournament, put on by the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, is held in July at the Oak Bluffs harbor; contestants compete for cash prizes for catching the largest shark. Spectators crowd the harbor, both on boats and on land, to see sharks hung at the harbor weigh station.
Police chief Erik Blake gave an overview of notes from a problem-solving session about the tournament, which included selectmen, harbor representatives and the police. He cited problems including overindulgence in alcohol, overcrowding at the harbor, inadequate rest room facilities, the impact to the perception and character of the town and the fact that ferries bring over “literally hundreds of people” for the event.
Further, he said, police resources were overwhelmed at the 2012 tournament, which took place the third weekend of July. The Oak Bluffs police department responded to 140 incidents that weekend, and made 21 arrests.
“Selectmen have to spend a lot of political time and effort on this one issue,” Mr. Blake said, with the shark tournament resurfacing consistently at board of selectmen meetings.
On the other hand, “people are passionate on both sides,” Mr. Blake said, adding that it has an economic benefit to the town, though he noted that people bring their own alcohol and it isn’t clear if all Oak Bluffs businesses benefit.
Mr. Blake also pointed out that shark fishing is not illegal, and the tournament is bound by conservation guidelines. At the 2012 tournament, 16 sharks were landed, with nine meeting weight requirements.
The problem-solving meeting led to several suggested responses, including the town and businesses working together and bars dedicating staff to making sure underage and intoxicated people are not being served. Other suggestions call for more police officers, perhaps using mutual aid and detail officers from other towns, a service fee to all slips to cover police, ambulance, and highway department costs and creating top ten lists of community bylaws and expectations to hand out.
Another suggestion was moving the tournament awards dinner to public property, on Washington Park, which would allow the town to have permitting of the event, and working more closely with Steve James, president of Boston Big Game.
Selectman Michael Santoro pressed for moving the event to another weekend, noting that the Portuguese-American club holds their annual feast the same weekend. Mr. Blake responded that the feast is not a drain on police resources.
“I like the idea of bathrooms,” Mr. Santoro said, adding that he thinks the biggest thing lacking is enforcement, with the police department stretched too thin.
“A lot of businesses on Circuit avenue could do away with the shark tournament,” added Mr. Santoro, who owns the Circuit avenue bar Seasons. He said people who are already intoxicated try to get into the bars.
Mr. Blake said that was part of the discussion. “Not every business thinks it’s a great thing,” he said.
Selectman Walter Vail also wondered about the economic benefit. “There are some who say that their business is actually down on shark tournament weekend because people don’t want to maneuver into Oak Bluffs and find a parking place,” he said. It would be helpful if we had some idea of the dollar benefit to the town.”
While he said there is no doubt tons of people who come into Oak Bluffs to see the sharks, “to me the important part is, is there an economic benefit to this town that we can translate . . . I’m not sure it’s there yet.”
Harbor master Todd Alexander said that at the harbor, business is up for businesses, and slips are full, especially on the Thursday of the shark tournament. The harbor goes from 60 to 80 per cent full on an average Thursday to 100 per cent full during the shark tournament. Otherwise, the harbor is busy on most July weekends, he said.
Selectman Gail Barmakian called for looking at the event atmosphere. “The nature of it has turned into a frat party, I’m just using that term loosely,” she said, adding it used to be a family event. “What power or what jurisdiction does the town actually have . . . is there something we can do to change the nature of the event?”
Selectman Kathy Burton called for a “massive police presence.”
The selectmen agreed to continue the discussion with Mr. James, and look at what the town spends on extra police officers and other resources.
The shark-centric conversation continued with consideration of a petition filed by Corinne de Langavant, with 10 signatures, to place a nonbinding question on the town meeting agenda and town election ballot about whether the town should require all shark tournaments in town to be catch-and-release only.
Ms. Burton said that with the 10 signatures, the question automatically goes on the town meeting agenda, but would only go on the ballot with the selectmen’s endorsement. If the selectmen failed to do so, she said, the petitioners would be required to gather signatures from 10 per cent of registered voters to get the question on the ballot (roughly 350 people).
“It would be the right thing to do for us to give people a chance to voice their opinions and how they think about it . . . for us to be leaders,” Ms. de Langavant said, citing endangered shark species. “It’s not my decision, I just think it makes sense for us to put it up for vote.”
She said that with current digital technology, people could watch the sharks being caught and released during the tournament.
“It doesn’t look good for us to have to go collect 350 signatures,” she added, saying there would be movies, documentaries and songs about the issue. “I feel passionate about standing firm in my belief that it’s the best thing to do. Voters need to know how we feel about this.”
Mr. Vail reiterated that his concern is the economics of the issue, and he’s “not sure it’s clear we have an economic benefit, plus the non-economic hit to town in terms of reputation.”
He also took issue with the nature of the petition, questioning whether the town could dictate whether the tournament was catch-and-release. But, he said, the town does not permit a shark tournament, per se, beyond allowing them to use the harbor. “If we were to say ‘Hey, Steve, we really don’t want you to bring any sharks into the harbor,’ automatically it says they won’t come here.” He said he would rather see a petition about whether or not the town is in favor of a shark tournament.
“So catch-and-release is really not the way I think to go about this, I’d rather do it in a different fashion. My opinion is we should have 10 per cent to put on ballot, let the town speak.
The last time the town held a referendum on the issue, in 2007, the outcome was 458-386 for the shark tournament, with 128 blank ballots cast.
Mr. Alexander said that the town can prohibit sharks from being brought to the harbor.
“I’m concerned about setting a precedent that 10 people can come in with a petition on anything whatsoever,” Ms. Burton said. “I think that’s why we have the 10 per cent of voting population, for me I don’t think that’s a hard thing to accomplish. I just can’t feel good about a petition that has only 10 signatures on it whether I agree with the merits of it or not.”
Selectman Greg Coogan said the selectmen addressed the shark tournament last winter, state shark biologist Greg Skomal convinced him the tournament did not have a big impact on shark conservation.
“I never think it hurts to see what people believe on a ballot question,” Ms. Barmakian said.
Ms. Barmakian made a motion to accept the petition and put the question on the ballot, saying it was clear to her there was a lot of talk about the issue in the town, but there was not a second.
This article has been edited to reflect the fact that 386 dissenting votes were cast in the 2007 referendum.