Shark Protection Rules Announced
Annual Tournament Held in Oak Bluffs Without Incident
By JACK SHEA
Trumping a 536-pound winning shark is difficult but the biggest news out of the 21st Monster Shark Tournament weekend for marine biologists, conservationists and fishermen is that the federal government is stepping up to protect several species of overfished sharks.
Specifically, the plan would put a formal shark research fishery in place with allowable shark landing limits and would prohibit the retention of porbeagle sharks, a species which both conservationists and marine scientists agree is only at 10-15 per cent of its 1961 population.
Late last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed tighter regulations that will affect commercial and recreational shark fishermen and dealers along the Atlantic Coast, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean regions.
An array of measures designed to stop overfishing and rebuild overfished shark stocks also features establishment of a shark research fishery that would meet the agency's research objectives and allow data collection programs.
Other important proposed measures include:
* Reducing quotas and retention limits consistent with stock assessments by species type.
* Initiating rebuilding plans for dusky, sandbar and porbeagle sharks, now federally determined to be overfished.
* Modifying recreational rules so recreational fisherman can only land shark species that are easy to identify, thereby reducing the mortality of shark stocks being rebuilt.
* Creating eight marine protected areas requested by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
As part of the process, NMFS will hold a two-month series of meetings from Portsmouth, N.H. to Aransas, Tex., beginning next month in Manahawkin, N.J. The only New England meeting will be held Sept. 17 in Portsmouth, N.H.
Meanwhile, at the tournament on Saturday, an estimated 500 spectators at the 6 p.m. deadline oohed and aahed as catches, mostly threshers, were hoisted and weighed while tournament impresario Steve James engaged the audience in questions and provided information about shark life.
Fish then moved to the cutting areas where scientists and marine biologists representing 11 U.S. colleges and institutions and one international school (the University of Norway) autopsied fish for data about food habits, age, growth and reproduction. Staffers then harvested the meat.
Fishermen were advised to return to pick up their harvested meat since the tournament was unable to donate the meat to the New York Council of Churches for distribution to the needy as it has in past years. Reportedly the Oak Bluffs board of health ruled that the tournament licensing and transportation system did not meet state regulations for shark meat processing for human consumption. A portion of the catch was donated to Island charities this year, however.
Mr. James said the tournament was successful, with 268 boats registering and weighing in 25 fish. The winning boat, The Provider out of Nantucket, caught a 311-pound thresher on Friday and a 327-pound thresher on Saturday for a total weight of 638 pounds. About 10 per cent of the registered boats actually brought fish to be weighed. The largest fish, a 536-pound thresher, was weighed in by the Castafari out of Pocasset.
As in past years, The Humane Society of the United States maintained a visible presence decrying the event, employing a two-hour airplane flyover banner on Saturday, demanding that "the cruel shark tournament" be ended immediately. The society also staffed a boat in the Oak Bluffs harbor for several hours on Saturday with a similar message.
Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the society, was upbeat about feedback at the informational booth at Post Office Square. "We've had a considerable number of people thank us for showing up this weekend. A lot of people saw the sharkwater film this week. That raised some awareness."
Down by the harbor a self-described anti-tournament ad hoc committee of two, Oak Bluffs residents Julie Vevost and Scott Hershowitz, carried two-sided orange and blue placards decrying the killing of sharks. The signs described the event as based in "unevolved male egos," decried the "sensationalized killing of falsely-accused animals," lamented about "what this society won't do for entertainment" and declared that "no rationalization can justify this." Ms. Vevost said she decided to stage the demonstration after reading Humane Society literature this winter.
"I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do this," she said. Underscoring the ad hoc nature of the demonstration, Mr. Hershowitz said observers should attach no particular significance to the colors used on the placards. "This is the paint we had," he said.
The event held fascination for some in the audience. Twelve-year-old Brandon Shelton of Germantown, Md., a veteran of past tournaments, cajoled his mom, Belinda Thomas, to take him to the weigh-in. Brandon had no questions but his mom, who had never seen a shark, had several for a reporter.
"How do they tell boys from girls?" she asked.
Dr. Lisa Natanson, a fisheries marine biologist who was autopsying and measuring shark organs at the time of the question, provided the answer.
For Kurt Lheureux and son Chris from New Bedford, the tournament represented part of a weekend with friends on the Vineyard. The elder Mr. Lheureux, a recreational fisherman who has never fished for sharks, said he enjoyed the event and will come back. The younger Mr. Lheureax, a senior forward on the Greater New Bedford Vocational High School hockey team, will be back in the winter to play against the Vineyarders.
Yesterday Greg Skomal a Vineyard marine biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries and national shark expert, said he sees many positives in the weekend news about more protection for the species.
"This proposed amendment, as in all fish management policy-making, is adjusting as you learn more, as you get more information," he said.
Sharon Young was also happy to hear details of the proposal, particularly involving porbeagle sharks. "Offering porbeagles the same protection that other at-risk species enjoy is always positive. We will review the proposed amendment," she said.