It was 35 years ago that Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws, about a great white shark that terrorizes a resort town, was first published, starting a run of 44 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and inspiring the Steven Spielberg film of the same name, filmed off the shores of Martha’s Vineyard.
This week the novelist’s widow, Wendy Benchley, made a visit to the Oak Bluffs selectmen to take aim at what has become, in recent years, a focal point in the battle over shark conservation: the annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament.
Earlier in the week, Mrs. Benchley sent a letter to selectmen asking them to end the town’s relationship with the shark tournament.
Jaws, the novel and movie, have been blamed for shaping people’s view of sharks as monsters of the deep. But 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 as much victims as villains.
Since Mr. Benchley died in 2006, his widow has worked to carry on her husband’s efforts to save sharks around the world.
The town of Oak Bluffs provides space at Sunset Park for a tent used during the tournament. Many animal rights groups — including the Humane Society of the United States — have urged the town in recent years to kick the tournament out.
“We have come such a long way in understanding the damage we are doing to the ocean,” Mrs. Benchley said. “As you may know, fish populations have crashed and there are indications that certain species of sharks are heading towards collapse if humans don’t start to fish in sustainable ways. Shark tournaments such as yours harm the cause of shark conservation.”
On Tuesday, Mrs. Benchley said events such as the Monster Shark Tournament promote the notion that it is heroic to kill sharks. “They promote killing sharks and profiting from their deaths. They perpetuate the damaging stereotype that it is heroic to kill these monsters — the word is even used in the title of the [tournament].”
Mrs. Benchley acknowledged the tournament is a boon to town businesses, and she suggested town leaders endorse a more conservation-friendly event such as a marine life festival to take its place. She said many of the people who flock to the tournament would also enjoy a more shark-friendly event.
“I think people who come to the Vineyard would love to see something that celebrates these animals’ lives instead of their deaths. If you give people a choice, I think they would rather learn about sharks and their environment than see them cut open for sport,” she said.
Sharon Young, marine issues field director of the Humane Society of the United States, said her organization will be launching a national campaign with public service announcements in opposition to the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament. The campaign will feature images both from the event and of the late Mr. Benchley.
Several selectmen gave a lukewarm endorsement to the idea of a maritime life festival, but noted there is likely nothing that can be done this year. Although voters last year considered a nonbinding question at the annual town meeting asking whether the town should continue to host the tournament, there are no plans to put a similar question on the ballot this year.
Selectman Roger Wey said town leaders should keep an open mind about hosting a more shark-friendly event, while chairman Kerry Scott said the board should keep an open dialogue with potential organizers of such an event.
In other business, selectmen received an update about the lingering legal questions surrounding the Boston Pops concert planned for August in Oak Bluffs’s Ocean Park. Concert organizers this year want to expand the event to include food and alcohol sales and have a longer running time, from early afternoon to late evening.
In response to the expanded event proposal, selectmen last month asked town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport to research a number of legal questions about the concert. Mr. Rappaport has since answered that the town cannot allow a private company to use a public park unless there is a clear and equal public benefit.
Although concert officials from Festival Network appeared before the board earlier this month to explain the public benefits, selectmen have now requested they submit a detailed proposal explaining the public benefit. Festival Network officials are expected to submit their proposal to town hall today, and selectman agreed to schedule a special meeting on Monday to review the proposal.