Wild Side: The wrong kind of fishing

The Monster Shark Tournament weigh station on Oak Bluffs harbor always attracts a crowd of spectators.
File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Monster Shark Tournament weigh station on Oak Bluffs harbor always attracts a crowd of spectators.

News of the probable move of the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament away from Oak Bluffs harbor broke with the Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby in full swing. A longstanding but increasingly controversial staple of O.B.’s summer waterfront, the shark tournament will likely operate in 2014 out of Newport, Rhode Island, according to M.V. Times coverage (see Nelson Sigelman’s article “Shark tourney ends 27 years in Oak Bluffs” in the October 3 issue). The Derby, meanwhile, proceeds as usual (albeit, it seems, plagued by a dearth of respectable fish).

An observer of humans as well as wildlife, I find this curious: why is one event an Island icon while the other gets run out of town? Both entail catching and killing fish of particular species. The bigger the fish, the better, in the context of both tournaments, and in both cases, the public nature of the weigh-in process creates opportunities for either gawking at or celebrating (a subjective distinction!) the most impressive victims of the hunt.

But there are differences. This isn’t to say that the Derby is universally beloved: online comments on Derby coverage sometimes argue that deliberately killing fish for sport is wrong. But opposition is limited and muted, and a high percentage of Islanders either fish the Derby or at least follow its results with interest. It’s an event centered on locally common fish, with three quarters of the species familiar food fish, and with an egalitarian twist in the form of shore-fishing categories. Winners are honored for their persistence and local knowledge. The Monster Shark Tournament, in contrast, was castigated for its elitism, its impact on declining species, its cruelty, its associated rowdiness, and perhaps for the fact that its participants were mainly off-Islanders.

My own view? Why, thank you for asking. I’d say that some of the criticism of the shark tourney has been unfair (is it any more cruel to hook a shark than a striper?). I should be clear that I am by no means a member of the “animals rights” camp; I’ve hooked, killed, and eaten fish myself, and I’d do it more often if the average fish weren’t, apparently, smarter than I am. And I’m sensitive to the argument that the shark tournament brought badly needed economic activity to Oak Bluffs, which is to say to my town and my neighbors.

But I come down squarely among the crowd that says Newport is welcome to the Monster Shark Tournament. The event repelled me, and I’m glad it’s gone.

For me, the issue isn’t even primarily one of conservation. It’s true that sharks in general tend to be uncommon to start with, since they are predators perched at the very top of the ocean food chain. Some shark species are overfished and in precipitous decline, and shark fisheries in general are abysmally managed. But the marine biologists who have been quoted saying that the toll of the shark tourney isn’t significant are, I believe, correct: the 12 sharks landed in 2013, or the nine in 2012, are a drop in the bucket of overall mortality for the species involved, and in terms of shark conservation, their value as research subjects may well outweigh their loss.

No, my distaste for the shark tourney stems from the attitudes associated with it. I see fishing as an honorable challenge, but the drunkenness and noise associated with the shark weigh-in undermine the fishing aspect in the same way that soccer hooliganism degrades the grace of the “joga bonito” (“beautiful game”). I hate the reliance of the shark tournament on expensive boats, expensive gear, and the climate-trashing combustion of vast quantities of fossil fuel. Even the name of the event — “Monster” — rubs me the wrong way. Nature includes cold lethality and brutal death, sure; but like tigers, wolves, and peregrine falcons, sharks strike me as exquisite, highly evolved animals with vital roles to play in nature. To brand them “monsters” says much more about human attitudes than it does about sharks.

In short, the Monster Shark Tourney strikes me as an anachronism, an event resting on and encouraging a hostility toward nature that is no longer viable. It’s a holdover of the exploitative, faux-heroic, man-against-nature mentality that characterized the relentless slaughter of big game in Africa through much of the 20th century, and, farther back, furnished an ideological justification for the obliteration of entire human cultures and natural ecosystems as Europeans “civilized” North America.

A belief in monsters and a desire to crush nature with technology no doubt served Homo sapiens well as evolutionarily modern humans began inventing culture: the possibility of ending up as prey rather than predator was very real. But somewhere along the transition to today’s world, humanity’s problem ceased to be too much nature and became too little. The Vineyard is and should be a fishing community, drawing resources from the water that surrounds us. But the Monster Shark Tournament is the wrong kind of fishing.