Oak Bluffs votes to keep shark tourney
A well-funded publicity campaign, coordinated by a powerful national animal rights group that bought full-page newspaper ads and urged supporters to write letters to the editors of Island newspapers, failed to convince a majority of Oak Bluffs voters to tell town selectmen to pull the plug on shark tournaments.
Last Thursday, 458 Oak Bluffs voters said yes and 386 said no to a non-binding ballot question that asked if the town should continue to allow the use of town property for events related to shark tournaments.
This week, town officials and community members offered varying explanations for the vote, including a general acceptance and apathy. One town leader said that intense pressure from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a powerful national animal rights group that opposes the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament, might have backfired.
The decision to include a non-binding referendum question in the annual meeting warrant this month was made last June, as opposition to the 2006 tournament swelled. Selectman Roger Wey said the vote would help guide town leaders in the future.
In the weeks leading up to the election, letters to the editor published in both Island newspapers urged residents to vote no. A full-page ad on the back page of the April 6 Vineyard Gazette with the headline, "Shark Fishing could be the planet's most brutal industry," urged residents to vote no at the polls.
Selectman Kerry Scott, who opposes the tournament and asked for the referendum, said more people should have come out to vote. "I think what happened was that people felt pressured by outside interests," Ms. Scott said Tuesday. "I think people were aggravated by it. That whole notion of people from faraway places dictating to us played in this one. I think it was a vote for independence."
Selectman Greg Coogan, who last year reacted to a HSUS telephone campaign aimed at the selectmen by putting the theme music from "Jaws" on his answering machine, said, "A lot of money was spent, and a lot of energy was put into it, and obviously even with all of that behind it, the people in town think it's a good idea." Mr. Coogan said the town is a tourist destination, and the shark tournament is one of the attractions that bring people to town.
Selectman chairman Duncan Ross agreed. He said that judging by what he had heard, he was surprised the vote wasn't higher in favor of keeping the tournament. "Very, very few people have approached me with an anti-shark tournament attitude," Mr. Ross said.
Steve Morris, the owner of Dick's Bait and Tackle in Oak Bluffs and a well-known Island fisherman, said that judging from the talk among the fishing community, he was not surprised the vote went in favor of the tournament. "I thought that's the way it would go," Mr. Morris said, adding that many people felt apathetic about the event. "There are people who say that they stay away from town on that weekend. It's like the fireworks. Once you've seen them once, you've seen them all."
Oak Bluffs resident Renee Balter agreed. Ms. Balter, who has her hand in many town organizations and causes, said with indifference, "I don't think I felt much about it one way or another."
A bit of history
The regional tournament turned into a big-time fishing event when it became the subject of a four-part ESPN television special in 2004. In 2005, the 19th annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament attracted a record number of 245 participating boats.
That same year the catch of a 1,191-pound tiger shark attracted national media attention and the attention of the Humane Society, which mounted a determined effort to oppose the tournament. HSUS argued that the shark tournament undermines the Island's values and encourages overfishing a species facing ecological disaster.
Supporters pointed to the tournament's long history in the town, the opportunities it provides for scientific research and recreation, as well as the boost it gives the local economy.
Last summer strong winds and high swells made fishing conditions difficult for the fishermen aboard the 268 registered boats. A total of 26 sharks were brought to the weigh station, far fewer than the previous year.
This year's 21st annual Monster Shark Tournament is planned for July 19 - 21.