Monster Shark Tournament returns to the Oak Bluffs big top
The 21st Annual Monster Shark Tournament returns to Oak Bluffs today. The circus is back in town for three days.
Beefy fishermen sporting gold fishing reels and gold watches (just an observation, not a criticism), blood-thirsty little kids, mostly boys who prefer real gore to video gore, tourists looking for a change of scenery and protestors philosophically opposed to the whole idea (of shark fishing, not gore-loving little kids) will meet by the harbor in Oak Bluffs.
For almost 18 years the annual shark tournament was a relatively simple affair. Fishermen got together, went fishing, killed some sharks and got together again to tell each other about the sharks they killed.
Publicity, including photos of crowds of people gazing at a particularly impressive fish, was pretty much restricted to The Times and on occasion when someone provided directions, the Vineyard Gazette. Then one day a photo of a real monster appeared in this paper and newspapers around the world - a 1,191-pound tiger shark.
The photo attracted the attention of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) - no minnow in the world of non-profits. According to the organizations' 2006 annual report, HSUS had net assets of almost $200 million.
Three years ago HSUS launched a publicity campaign to convince Oak Bluffs officials to pull the welcome mat out from under the big game club. It posted information on its web site and urged its members to call and write local officials.
The current HSUS web site has a description of the campaign. The story begins: "Martha's Vineyard is the quintessential New England vacation destination, complete with quaint villages, charming harbors, and gorgeous beaches. People seeking respite have flocked to the island for generations to be greeted by friendly Vineyarders whose economy depends on the seasonal influx of tourists.
"But the idyllic island image cloaks a sinister ritual sanctioned by local officials. Each summer, entrants in the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament hook sharks; bleed, suffocate, or repeatedly gaff them; and string them up on docks in gruesome, sometimes mocking displays - all for prizes and gory glory. In the 2005 tournament, some 240 boats hooked approximately 2,500 sharks and killed 46 sharks in the span of 3 days. In the 2006 tournament, stormy weather provided a partial reprieve; 26 sharks were killed."
Of course, HSUS grossly exaggerates the facts. As we all know, there are no greetings by friendly Islanders and the sinister ritual is not fishing, but trying to make a Steamship reservation.
The fishermen, most of the selectmen, and a majority of the voters in Oak Bluffs have not been moved by the HSUS campaign. If anything it might have backfired.
The Big Game club, as it has in the past, has once again tweaked the rules to minimize the number of sharks brought to the weigh-in. Only thresher, porbeagle, and mako sharks will count for points. And only one shark per boat may be brought to the dock per day.
I do not know if the organizers made the changes due to pressure from HSUS. I tend to think not. Tournament organizers around the country, including those who run the annual Vineyard bass and bluefish Derby, increasingly understand that conservation needs to be a part of any fishing tournament.
I am not a shark fisherman. It is not something that appeals to me. I am not even a fan of the monster shark tournament.
But I think HSUS employs the wrong tactics when it attempts to bully local officials and go after sport fishermen to force them to stop doing something they have every right to do.
The fishermen are fishing for species managed by state and federal fisheries regulators. It is a sport they enjoy.
There are sports I do not enjoy and find philosophically offensive, like curling, but who am I to say Canadians should not beat each other with brooms?
The actual number of sharks taken in tournaments across the country is miniscule when compared to the numbers taken by commercial fishermen, in some cases only for the fins. Instead of fighting with sport fishermen HSUS would do better to work with fishermen.
There are many examples of conservation groups working with hunters for the benefit of a species. The hunters bring needed income to local villagers, which provides an incentive not to poach or destroy habitat and the animals are protected.
Fishermen have a vested interest in protecting sharks. Education, not scare tactics and pressure, is needed. For a good example one only needs to look at the striped bass, a conservation success story that would not have been possible without support from fishermen.
HSUS should acknowledge that interest and work with fishermen and forget the friendly Islanders.
Blood-thirsty little kids and adults may view the spectacle from 3:30 to 7 pm on Friday and Saturday.