Oak Bluffs puts bite on ESPN shark show
Town's image concerns the selectmen
Unlike the meeting with fictional selectmen in the movie Jaws, Oak Bluffs leaders were more concerned with the behavior of fishermen than a fish when selectmen met with ESPN filmmakers Friday to discuss the annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament.
Helicopter noise complaints, the public image of Oak Bluffs, fisheries conservation, and a shark head adorned with sunglasses were some of the topics on the minds of selectmen at an informal meeting last week with tournament organizer Steven James, president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, ESPN program manager Doug Loughrey, and Jonathan Fierro, coordinating producer for Redline Films.
The Monster Shark Tournament in Oak Bluffs draws a monster crowd, plus ESPN, but critics want it ended. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The discussion was cordial. Mr. James and Mr. Loughrey described the efforts they would take to respond to some of the concerns they heard. And they emphasized their working relationship with Greg Skomal, a state Division of Marine Fisheries marine biologist and shark expert, who also attended the meeting.
But opponents of the tournament, which include a group of Vineyarders, formerly known as Save Our Sharks, and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), should not expect to see an ESPN broadcast that resembles a National Geographic nature special anytime in the future.
At the end of the day, said Mr. Loughrey, the show is about sport fishing and fishing competition. Images of fishermen battling thrashing sharks, the camaraderie among crews, and profiles of the colorful personalities, including Vineyard fishermen who participate in the monster shark tournament, would continue to be dominant production themes they said.
The popular cable sports network turned what had been a mostly regional tournament into a big-time fishing event when it made the contest the subject of a four-part ESPN television special in 2004. Last summer, the 19th annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament attracted a record number of 245 participating boats wiling to pay the more than $1000 entry fee.
Over the course of the weekend event boats brought in a total of 46 sharks to the weigh station located in the Our Market parking lot on Oak Bluffs Harbor where large crowds gathered each day to watch the fish be weighed in. The most impressive fish caught was a 1,191-pound tiger shark.
Unfortunately, the fish was so large it could not be brought into the boat and was towed alongside the boat for the return trip, considerably slowing the fishermen who caught it. They arrived six minutes after the weigh-in deadline and missed first place but attracted national media attention.
The large catch also attracted the attention of the Humane Society, which called on ESPN not to broadcast the show and mounted an effort to oppose the tournament. The opposition continued this winter.
Following the receipt of more than 40 letters, many sharing similar language and arguments asking that selectmen cancel the tournament, selectmen met with Mr. Skomal, who offered another view of the contest. Mr. Skomal, who gathers data from tournaments around the state, assured the selectmen that the tournament does not pose a risk to the overall shark population, given the restrictions in place.
The selectmen appeared satisfied with the science underpinning the tournament. But for the groups who would like to see the tournament end, it is not the number of sharks caught but the fact that sharks are being caught for entertainment and prize money.
Last Thursday, Vineyarders opposed to the tournament hosted a lecture by Sharon Young, HSUS marine issues field director, who spoke about the threats posed to sharks which she said come mainly from the commercial long-line fishing industry. Approximately 20 people attended the talk, including Oak Bluffs selectmen Kerry Scott and Roger Wey and Mr. Skomal, who took issue with some information presented by Ms. Young that she attributed to his shark research.
On Friday, the selectmen appeared more concerned with image and appearances than biology. Greg Coogan, chairman of the board of selectmen, said the purpose of the meeting was to ask the organizers to respond to complaints and help promote Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Wey said his main concern was a helicopter that hovered approximately four hours each day over the town and nearby waterfront properties disturbing residents. Mr. Loughrey said ESPN did not pay a helicopter to hover away from the fishing action and suggested there was a mistake.
Mr. James cleared up the confusion when he said a professional photographer who takes custom photos of boats and waterfront scenes to sell on a web site was likely the source of the noise. He promised to speak with the man and ask that he reduce his flying time.
Selectman Duncan Ross said that part of the problem was one of perception, that a lot of people in the community think the tournament is only about killing sharks. He asked for more emphasis on "the other side of it."
Mr. Loughrey said that one of the reasons ESPN had decided to focus on the Oak Bluffs tournament was the involvement of Mr. Skomal, and that interviews with him about his work had been included in past footage and would again be featured.
Mr. Coogan said he would not want Oak Bluffs to be known as "the shark killing, maiming capital of the world."
He urged the producers to highlight Mr. Skomal's work and possibly hire local students to help
out during production.
Todd Alexander, Oak Bluffs harbormaster, said the main complaints he heard stemmed from the "spectacle of the so-called slaughter," a reference to dead fish lined up on the dock. He asked why the tournament could not be catch and release.
Mr. James said that the tournament was designed to minimize the number of fish brought to the dock and only two percent of the fish caught were weighed in. But he said that the reality is that fishermen and the spectators want to see fish and without both the tournament would "vaporize."
Mr. James said the tournament had hired a refrigerated truck to bring shark fillets to a Long Island food bank capable of handling large quantities of fish. He said he would be happy to provide fish locally if someone would be responsible for distribution. Mr. Wey agreed to take responsibility for distributing shark steaks to the Island's elderly.
Kerry Scott said she continued to hear from many people opposed to the contest. Ms. Scott asked that the sharks brought to the dock not be decorated or degraded in any way.
Mr. James said he had made it clear to the captains that poor behavior would not be tolerated and said that he was not aware that had occurred. He asked Ms. Scott to cite an example.
Ms. Scott said she did not attend the tournament last year. Mr. Alexander said that in the past shark heads had been displayed along the bulkhead but that did not happen last year.
Ms. Scott said she was also not proud of the way the show portrayed the Vineyard and asked for more balance. She pressed
for more emphasis on Oak
Bluffs and what it offered.
Mr. Fierro, who leads the film crew, said the show had included many popular images including the campgrounds and beaches and featured a segment on shark tagging. "I'm sorry you don't think that looks favorable," he said.
Ms. Scott said that was done was done well but she thought a little more of Oak Bluffs was needed but did not specify what that might be.
Mr. Loughrey said ESPN had considered filming other tournaments but settled on the monster shark tournament because of the format, which promotes strict minimum weight limits, and Mr. Skomal's data collection Refusing to make any editorial commitments, he said that filming a successful show depended on many elements, not the least of which was the fish. ESPN would do its best to meet the requests to highlight the town and local people, he said.
But what it all comes down to is the competition, according to Mr. Loughrey. "And that's what we are here to cover is the competition," he said.