Humane Society steps up protest of shark tourney
The 20th annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament begins today under the critical gaze of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The country's largest animal rights group is waging a national campaign to pressure Oak Bluffs selectmen to end a contest that it claims "undermines the Island's values and its reputation."
That campaign moved into high gear this week with an HSUS national e-mail alert. The "take action" message sent by the society encourages its members to e-mail and call local and state officials to protest the tournament. It specifically targets two of the four Oak Bluffs selectmen, even providing their home telephone numbers.
This week the Humane Society is teaming up with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) and other local supporters to get their anti-shark tournament message out to the public in a variety of ways. According to a press release that effort will include posters, pins, petitions directed at selectmen, ads, T-shirts and an aerial banner towed by an airplane on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons.
In the 2005 edition of the Monster Shark tourney, a crowd gathered at the Oak Bluffs harbor bulkhead to watch the sharks arrive. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The expressed goal is to convince the Oak Bluffs selectmen to stop providing a venue for the popular fishing contest. With the exception of selectmen Kerry Scott, other board members have generally been satisfied by the efforts of tournament organizers to limit the number of fish brought to the weigh station, to distribute shark meat, and to provide opportunities for fisheries researchers to collect data.
The HSUS says the tournament is about greed and cruelty. Participating fishermen say it is about competition, fishing excitement, and fun.
Steven James, president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, which organizes the tournament, said the controversy has not hurt the fishing contest. "I don't think anyone cares what the Humane Society is doing," said Mr. James. "It looks like we are going to hit 275 boats."
Mr. James said that HSUS is misleading people across the country and pointed to a web site, www.activistcash.com, that he said provides a revealing look inside the nonprofit. "They are no more a humane society than I am," said Mr. James.
At a meeting with selectmen in April, Mr. James and representatives of ESPN, which films the tournament, described the efforts they would make to respond to some of the concerns selectmen had about the tournament. They also emphasized their working relationship with Greg Skomal, a state Division of Marine Fisheries marine biologist and shark expert, who samples the fish brought in for research purposes.
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 entrants willing to pay the entry fee of more than $1,000 per boat.
Over the course of the 2005 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 fishermen who caught it arrived six minutes after the weigh-in deadline and missed first place but attracted national media attention. It also got the attention of the Humane Society, which called on ESPN not to broadcast the show and mounted an effort to oppose the tournament. The Oak Bluffs selectmen's unwillingness to cancel the tournament spurred this week's high-profile campaign.
HSUS has deep pockets and considerable resources to bring to the fight. Based on the most recent 2004 tax information available, HSUS had $74 million in income and assets worth approximately $111,021,000, according to Charity Navigator, an organization that profiles nonprofits.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, John W. Grandy, HSUS senior vice president, equated the monster shark tournament to banned sports such as cock fighting and dog fighting. Mr. Grandy said that the amount of money involved in the tournament is "shocking" and washes away any notion that the tournament has any scientific foundation.
"This is just about greed and profit," said Mr. Grandy, who was less specific regarding other popular tournaments. "We do not take a position on fishing per se, but what we have done is look at the cruelty and suffering involved in this and on merit it is horrific."
Referring to sharks specifically, he said the animals are "systematically made to endure horrendous suffering for little more than greed and recreation."
In news releases HSUS links the tournament to global studies that show dramatic worldwide declines in shark populations. The press release makes no mention of commercial shark fishing operations, which are responsible for most of that decline, and says the Vineyard effort is part of a nationwide campaign to end "shark-killing contests."
Oak Bluffs politics is not for the queasy, but few town leaders expect to find themselves in the crosshairs of a national campaign. However, HSUS has taken direct aim at selectmen Duncan Ross and Gregory Coogan for refusing to put the question of the tournament on the ballot of an August 8 special town election that has been called to fill the seat vacated by former selectman Michael Dutton, who was appointed town administrator last week.
At a selectmen's meeting on June 13, selectmen Roger Wey and Kerry Scott split with selectman Gregory Coogan and chairman Duncan Ross on a motion by Mr. Wey to place a nonbinding tournament referendum on the special election ballot.
Mr. Wey and Ms. Scott took the view that it would be best to present the issue while it was fresh in voters' minds. Mr. Coogan and Mr. Ross said that they were not opposed to gauging voter sentiment but that the annual town meeting was a more appropriate venue to discuss a serious issue before the largest number of voters.
In full-page ads and press statements HSUS has criticized selectmen for keeping the question off the ballot. Mr. Grandy dismissed the view that the two selectmen were acting in the best interests of the voters and the town's political process. "I have talked to people who were there and who know and who assure me that my interpretation of this is correct," he said. "They don't want it put to the ballot when they are in the immediate wake of the cruelty and suffering that everybody will see and be reminded of."
Tuesday Mr. Coogan, a veteran Tisbury schoolteacher, said The Humane Society has taken the vote out of context to further its media campaign and portrayed it inaccurately. He said that there was no objection to a vote, only the timing. He said there was no ulterior motive beyond maintaining the town's tradition of bringing up important issues at the annual meeting.
Mr. Coogan said the selectmen had discussed the tournament for hours at several meetings prior to giving the go ahead this year. He said that it would be wrong for the selectmen to cancel the event simply based on their personal views, or in response to pressure from one powerful interest group.
Ring, ring, ring
This week, the HSUS campaign targeting the two selectmen was the subject of a nationwide e-mail alert.
Titled, "Take action, give the hook to the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament," the alert asked recipients to contact the board of selectmen, the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, and the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, "to tell them that Martha's Vineyard should be renowned for its natural beauty, not the man-made ugliness of the Oak Bluffs Shark Tournament."
The alert asked members to "make a brief, polite call to one or more" of the contacts listed and provided the home telephone numbers of Mr. Coogan and Mr. Ross and an office number for Alice Butler, administrator of the office of the selectmen. The alert asked members to follow up with an e-mail form provided.
Both selectmen said they had received numerous calls at home this week. Mr. Ross estimated at least 25 calls. He said he spoke to one man calling from California.
But Mr. Ross has managed to retain his sense of humor. When asked what he thought about the society urging people to call him at home, he said, "Well, I don't think it's very humane."
Mr. Ross said he thinks that it would be more appropriate in this instance to contact public officials through the selectmen's office, although he would not want to discourage local residents from calling him at home.
Mr. Coogan said he could not understand why he was suddenly receiving telephone calls from people around the country about the shark tournament, until he asked one of the callers, a woman from Connecticut. She explained that it was in response to an e-mail request. After speaking with Mr. Coogan, the woman said she had been misinformed about the tournament and the selectmen, and she suggested that the town do more to counter the HSUS misinformation.
"I told her we are just a little town and have other things to do," Mr. Coogan said.
Also maintaining a sense of humor, Mr. Coogan has added the theme song from the movie Jaws to the greeting on his answering machine at home.