Oak Bluffs selectmen discuss shark tournament's future
Last summer, the annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament attracted a record number or participants. Organized by the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, the contest was the subject of a four-part ESPN television special. It also attracted considerable controversy when a national animal rights group called for it to end.
On Tuesday night Oak Bluffs selectmen, spurred by a recent flood of letters from people opposed to the contest, discussed the future of the popular fishing event that often attracts hundreds of spectators to the afternoon weigh-ins when sharks are brought to the dock.
The selectmen's office said that in the last three weeks the town received more than 40 letters, many sharing similar language and arguments. Almost all of the letters opposed the tournament and asked the selectmen to cancel the three-day event this summer.
The Monster Shark Tournament in Oak Bluffs each July attracts huge crowds, and recently lots of criticism. The selectmen are considering its future. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The selectmen raised the issue of the shark tournament at a meeting on Dec. 27. The selectmen briefly discussed the issue and agreed to invite Greg Skomal, a state division of marine fisheries marine biologist and shark expert based on Martha's Vineyard, to their next meeting.
The recent letter-writing campaign came less than six months after the Humane Society of the United States launched a concerted effort to try and sway the cable sports network ESPN not to broadcast the tournament.
The contest is the longest-running shark tournament in Massachusetts. This summer will be the tournament's 20th anniversary. The event has increased in size dramatically in recent years. Approximately 240 boats entered last year's event.
At Tuesday's meeting, Mr. Skomal, who gathers data at tournaments around the state, said that the selectmen should cut through the "hype" that surrounds the tournament. He said that the tournament does not pose a risk to the overall shark population, since fishermen are not allowed to land 20 species of sharks that are endangered or protected, including white sharks.
"If I felt that this tournament, or any other tournament was detrimental to populations of sharks, I would go out of my way to stop them," said Mr. Skomal. "What you guys are wrestling with is perception, how you are being perceived. That is really what it boils down to. The fact is the tournament is not a detriment to the population of sharks."
He asked the selectmen to look at the tournament like any other fishing event. "What makes this shark tournament different from a bluefin tuna tournament, for example?" he asked. "The bluefin tuna is a fish that is 20 percent or less than what it should be in terms of population, but there hasn't been a single letter written about bluefin tuna."
Mr. Skomal also stressed the research and educational benefits of the tournament. He said that he and other marine biologists collect tissue samples form the sharks that aid in marine biology research. He said that because it is the longest-running tournament in the state, the Oak Bluffs tournament also helps scientists see trends in the shark population.
The selectmen asked Mr. Skomal many questions about sharks and the tournament, including tagging methods, mortality rates for released fish, and various trends in the shark population. They appeared satisfied with Mr. Skomal's answers, and thanked him for his presentation.
While the selectmen said that Mr. Skomal gave them a better understanding of the tournament, they took no action at Tuesday's meeting. The selectmen said that they would continue to gather public input and more information before making a decision. They said that they would invite Steve James, president of Boston Big Game Fishing Club, to attend their meeting on Feb. 14.