Like an ominous dorsal fin appearing behind unsuspecting bathers set to the familiar theme music from Jaws, debate over the Boston Big Game Fishing Club Monster Shark Tournament resurfaced these past few weeks just as the countdown to the summer season began in earnest.
Stoking the debate this time around is a ballot question that will go to Oak Bluffs voters at the April 12 town election asking if they want the town to continue to host the tournament. Although the question is non-binding, it may prompt selectmen to end the town's involvement with the tournament.
The question will be the only one to appear on the ballot this election. It will appear below the races for town boards and committees, and read: "Shall the town of Oak Bluffs continue to allow the use of town property for events related to shark tournaments?"
Even though this will be the first time residents will take any kind of vote on the shark tournament, there is a noticeable lack of buzz or even interest in the issue around town.
As has been the case in recent years, most of the arguments both for and against the event seem to be coming from off-Island sources. While press releases from animal rights groups opposed to the event have circulated on the Island - prompting rebuttals from tournament organizers - Islanders seem to have little interest in the issue.
Even if Oak Bluffs residents vote against keeping the tournament on April 10, it likely will have no effect on this year's event.
If voters do support ending the town's affiliation with the tourney, it will then be up to selectmen to make a final decision. If selectmen decide not to allow town land to be used for the event, there is still a chance tournament officials may move the event entirely onto private land.
This past week, the Gazette received press releases from the Humane Society of the United States and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies criticizing the tournament as inhumane and cruel. Both the press statements called for Oak Bluffs voters to end the tournament by voting against the ballot question at next month's elections.
John Grandy, the senior vice-president of the Humane Society explains in the press release that officials in Destin, Fla., recently cancelled a shark tournament held there, and called on Oak Bluffs officials to do the same.
"Shark tournaments are destructive killing contests that breed disrespect for these beleaguered animals. We hope other coastal communities will recognize the plight of sharks and follow Destin's lead," Mr. Grandy said.
The release from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies makes a direct plea to the voters of Oak Bluffs to take a stand against the tournament.
"We hope that you will join us in opposing the continuation of the Monster Shark Tournament. It is time to begin to appreciate sharks as extraordinary creatures that are an important part of the marine environment. It is time we began celebrating the diversity of Massachusetts' ocean wildlife, not celebrating its destruction," wrote Peter Borrelli, the Executive Director Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
The early opposition this year is a marked change from several years ago, when the event was 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, it was suddenly exposed to a worldwide audience, and both interest and criticism in the tournament escalated. It also became a target for animal rights groups.
There may be a noticeable lack of media coverage at this year's tournament. ESPN has announced it will not be taping and televising the event as it has in recent years.
Tournament organizer Steven James said ESPN's decision to pull out of the tournament was in no way influenced by the controversy fueled by groups like the Humane Society of the United States. Instead, he said, the sports network lost one of its sponsors and decided not to broadcast the event for strictly financial reasons.
Mr. James said he is now negotiating with at least two other networks about broadcasting the event, and there was a good chance the event may still wind up on television. Either way, the event will not miss a beat, he said.
"It really doesn't matter to me if it's broadcast or not. The tournament is meant to be a top-rate fishing tournament, not just a television show," he said.
But even without the cameras, the tournament is expected to again attract opposition from an emotional contingent of animal rights activists.
In a telephone interview with the Gazette earlier this week, Mr. Grandy said the United States Humane Society will again protest the event.
Last year, several members of the society set up a booth at Post Office Square in downtown Oak Bluffs and collected more than 1,000 signatures from people opposed to the event.
The society also placed an article on its Web site encouraging residents to get in touch with the Oak Bluffs board of selectman and the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. The move resulted in thousands of angry letters, phone calls and e-mails from people across the world to the selectmen and the chamber.
Mr. Grandy said the society feels the tournament is a gross injustice that sends the wrong message that it is okay to hunt and kill sharks.
"The level of cruelty is truly horrific. The fact that children are exposed to and urged to revel in the killing of these magnificent animals is utterly distasteful," Mr. Grandy said, referring to the weigh station where the sharks are dissected after they are measured and weighed.
Mr. Grandy said tournaments like the one in Oak Bluffs do real damage to the shark population. Even thought boats are allowed to bring only one shark to the weigh station each day, he said as many as 20 per cent of the sharks hooked and released by fishermen are seriously wounded or die.
"These are living creatures and they deserve more respect and more compassion then be part of this barbaric practice of catch and release," Mr. Grandy said.
But proponents of the tournament like Mr. James dismiss these accusations as a smear campaign designed to further an agenda.
Mr. James blamed the society for unfairly generating negative publicity about the tournament and for portraying the Vineyard in a negative light. He said tournament officials are dedicated to promoting ethical and conservative fishing practices and assisting state and federal agencies in scientific research programs.
All of the sharks killed during the event are catalogued and studied by marine biologists and scientists. Last year, the tournament paid for several tracking devices attached to sharks that were released back into the ocean. Tournament official also donate meat from the sharks to senior centers and food banks both on and off the Island.
Mr. James said the tournament ultimately may choose to move to private land, but he said that would come as a last resort.
"We have a great relationship with the businesses and the people of the town of Oak Bluffs," he said. "The people of town have been great to us, and we hope that relationship lasts a long time."