Imagine walking through a Walmart where all the customers wear bathing suits. Think of every cast member of every television reality show on jet skis in Oak Bluffs Harbor. Ponder an MTV, Jersey Shore, L.A. Ink, Tapout, ESPN, Chamber of Commerce floating block party.
On Saturday afternoon, I went to Oak Bluffs to take in the scene surrounding the Boston Big Game Fishing club’s 24th annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament. No doubt the 90-degree temperatures and equatorial humidity helped fuel the party atmosphere.
A cluster of boats was rafted together in the harbor. Guys and girls in their twenties appeared to be having a very good time drinking beer and jumping into the water.
A skinny older guy on a Jet Ski, wearing a bathing suit and adorned with tattoos from his ankles to his neck motored slowly by and eased in between a cluster of people sitting in rafts and dinghies. They were gathered on the water near the weigh station set up in a corner of the Our Market parking lot, anticipating a view of a shark.
Men, women and children sat or walked along the harbor bulkhead in various states of undress. I saw nose studs, belly-button studs, wide bodies, tall bodies, and hard bodies.
Many sported tattoos. We have come a long way from a heart with an arrow and the inscription “Mom.”
I do not understand the skin-billboard culture. Certainly, over the past decade young Americans and many older ones have embraced the notion of looking like a human bumper sticker.
Two elderly ladies dressed in summer finery sat on a bench. I thought of how people might have dressed for an afternoon hanging in the old West.
The Dukes County Sheriff’s Department boat with two deputies on board slowly moved around the packed harbor. My guess is that they were not looking for an escapee.
They were joined by a Coast Guard patrol boat, the Oak Bluffs fire rescue boat and an Oak Bluffs harbor patrol boat.
Oak Bluffs harbor was a very safe place to be Saturday afternoon — unless you were a shark. And the truth is I thought it was pretty entertaining.
What were Oak Bluffs town leaders thinking several years ago when they contemplated booting this circus out of town? Were they aspiring to buddy up to Edgartown?
Like it or not, there appears to be no question that the tournament is good for business. The amount spent on ice cream and beer alone would equal an Obama administration stimulus payout.
Several years ago tournament opponents were successful in their efforts to boot the tournament party tent off Sunset Lake Park. On Saturday, the town charged people $5 to park.
According to harbormaster Todd Alexander, a total of 330 boats were in slips, on moorings, and rafted together. In all, a total of 124 boats registered for the tournament, Steve James, club president said.
On Friday, the first day of the two-day contest they returned with 16 sharks of which five were penalized for not making the minimum weight threshold.
For years, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) made the Oak Bluffs tournament the focus of a well-publicized campaign to end shark tournament fishing. This weekend the group was absent.
In May I received an email from Liz Bergstrom of the Humane Society. She wanted me to know about a new catch and release shark tournament held in Sarasota, Fla. The Humane Society of the United States considers catch and release tournaments to be a more humane alternative to kill-shark tournaments, which are planned this year in Saco, Maine; Martha’s Vineyard; Ocean City, Md.; Brielle, Cape May and Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.; and Montauk and Freeport, N.Y., she wrote.
HSUS is concerned about sharks. And there is reason to be concerned. But the threat is not caused by recreational fishermen but by foreign commercial fleets that exploit sharks, often only for their fins, with no regard for conservation measures.
My argument was always that rather than fight with tournament organizers and recreational fishermen, HSUS should work with them. All sides have an interest in preserving healthy populations.
The fact is that the fishermen who enter the Monster Shark tournament fish within state and federal regulations and follow strict tournament limits. The number of sharks they bring to the dock is very limited.
I would rather catch a big fluke. But I will not begrudge someone the opportunity to fish for sharks because it is a fish I would not target.
On Saturday afternoon such thoughts were far from the Oak Bluffs coliseum crowd. About 4 pm the first fishing boat pulled into the harbor it had left before dawn that morning.
The “Tuna Tangler Too,” a 48-foot Dixson with five men on board out of Montauk arrived to big applause from the crowd. On the deck was a thresher shark, an animal with a tail almost as long as its body.
The tournament crew hoisted the shark up the scale. The crowd went wild. The weight was announced at 413-pounds, a first place fish that would earn the crew a $50,000-valued, 21-foot Contender powerboat with a 200 horsepower Yamaha outboard motor.
The shark was placed on a large cutting board. Lisa Natanson, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service apex predators program, and Jeff Kneebone, a doctoral student from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, got to work.
Ms. Natanson slit the shark’s abdomen. Squeamish this group was not. The crowd craned for a good view. “Eweeeh,” said a little kid, who no doubt would have been happy to assist the biologists in going through the shark innards.
Greg Skomal, Division of Marine Fisheries biologist and the state’s shark expert, said biologists take advantage of this tournament and others like it to gather samples but competition and camaraderie drive the tournaments, not science.
Think Oak Bluffs is over the top when it comes to sharks? What about the local media? Every summer we can count on breathless reports of shark sightings and this summer has been no exception.
In June, a Gloucester charter fisherman angling for some free press caught a seven-foot juvenile great white on Stellwagen bank and made a video of the catch. Local television news stations and newspaper reported the story in breathless terms and references to you-know-what-movie.
Ian Bowles, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary, felt compelled to issue a statement: “Swimmers should just use common sense and don’t swim near seals.”
Even the Coast Guard got into the act.
“Predation is not generally a concern for boaters and paddlers in Northeast waters,” Al Johnson, a Coast Guard recreational boating specialist, said in a statement published in the Globe, “but I have no doubt that a great white shark that swims into your comfort zone would surely find a splashing paddle or dangling hand inviting.”
I asked Greg about the hype. He was diplomatic. “Sharks sell,” he noted.
Yes, he said, there are sharks in the ocean, even in New England waters. No, you should not dress like a seal and swim off Chatham.
Greg said the last shark attack in New England waters was in 1936. The risk needs to be kept in perspective, he said.
I think of it like driving up Circuit Avenue.
Shark tournament results
First Place: Paul Stern, “Tuna Tangler Too,” Monroe, NY; 413 LB Thresher.
Second Place: Michael Pallazola, “Carpediem,” Essex, MA; 306 LB Thresher.
Third Place: Jason Zutaut, “Nicole C” Rochester, MA; 292 LB Thresher.
Fourth Place: Charles Gallagher, “Lisa Marie” S. Orleans, MA; 281 LB Thresher.
Fifth Place: Pete Kakridas, “Krissy K” Weston, MA; 272 LB Thresher.
Top Jr. Angler: Keith Brandner, “Carol Libby” Tenafly, NJ; 7 sharks released
Top Female Angler: Laura Jenkins, “Ripple” Cataumet, MA, 9 sharks released.
Largest Thresher: 413LB, Paul Stern, “Tuna Tangler Too” Monroe, NY.
Largest Mako Shark: 213 LB, Jim McInnis, “Priority Too” Scituate, MA
Largest Porbeagle Shark: 258 LB, Harvey Russell
“My Brother” Oak Bluffs, MA
Release Award: 26 Releases, Pete Casagrande
“American Mustang” Wall Township, NJ
Tag Award: John Pantano, “Stormy Weather”