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Shark Fight Pits Locals Against Fishermen in ‘Jaws’ Home

Shark Fight Pits Residents Against Fishermen in ‘Jaws’ Home
Crowds gather along the waterfront to view sharks caught in the Monster Shark Tournament at the docks in Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard. Photographer: Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On Martha’s Vineyard, the Massachusetts island where the aquatic villain in the 1975 film “Jaws” menaced swimmers, some residents now say sharks need protection from humans.

Voters in the town of Oak Bluffs passed a measure calling for the annual Monster Shark Tournament that begins today to be the last contest where the animals can be killed and strung up by their tails, a tradition that draws thousands to the island home of financier Steven Rattner and actor Ted Danson. Though nonbinding, the measure is pitting residents against merchants and big-game fishermen who travel from as far as Texas to chase some of the ocean’s largest predators.

“It has turned into a spectacle and a frat-party scene,” said Gail Barmakian, one of five selectmen representing Oak Bluffs, which sits on a harbor lined with gingerbread-style homes and is scented by clams frying at nearby restaurants. The town becomes unrecognizable during the four-day tournament, she said, with drunks sleeping on sidewalks and broken beer bottles piled under benches.

To pay for police and municipal resources strained during the contest, Oak Bluffs has added a $225 docking fee for the tournament and an extra $40 daytime mooring fee for spectators. Last year, police made 21 arrests, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

Wrong Message

In a nation so fascinated by sharks that more than 1 million viewers tuned into the Syfy channel this month for “Sharknado,” a disaster movie that combines the menace of killer fish with cyclonic weather, the island’s shift in attitude represents a victory, even if symbolic, said Wendy Benchley, the widow of “Jaws” author Peter Benchley.

“We love our monsters,” said Benchley, president of the board of the New York-based Shark Savers conservation group. “But the culture has changed. To have a kill tournament at this time in the life of the ocean just sends the message to the public and the youth that it is OK to kill our apex predators that are in trouble around the world.”

Peter Benchley set the novel in the fictitious summer resort town of Amity, New York, on Long Island. Director Steven Spielberg moved the location to New England and shot most of the film on Martha’s Vineyard, where President Barack Obama vacations with his family and the average price of a home was $1 million last year.

Harbor Threat

Steve James, owner of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, which runs the tournament, said conservationists’ concerns are misguided. The sharks caught aren’t endangered and only 16 were taken last year, he said. Moreover, accusations about revelry should be leveled at 20-something partiers, not the fishermen who rise at dawn to chase the elusive shark, James said.

“They try to make it seem like there is a dead shark hanging on every pylon in Oak Bluffs,” James said in a telephone interview.

Should the town selectmen enforce the catch-and-release measure next year, he threatened to tell contestants to drop their captured sharks near the shoreline.

“How exciting would it be to have hundreds of sharks in Oak Bluffs Harbor?” he said with a laugh. “That is what catch-and-release is about.”

Protests began after a photograph from the 2005 tournament broadcast by national media brought attention to shark fishing and scrutiny from animal-rights activists, according to James. The picture showed a 1,191-pound (540 kilogram) tiger shark caught by a fisherman that was brought to the dock minutes after the tournament deadline had expired.

Public ‘Butchery’

Since then, groups such as the Washington-based Humane Society and New Zealand’s Earthrace Conservation have shown up in Martha’s Vineyard to protest. Even Nigel Barker, a former judge on the television reality show “America’s Next Top Model,” has joined the fray. In 2008, he watched the tournament and chronicled the daily weigh-in on his blog.

“The sharks are unceremoniously hanged, drawn and quartered in a public display of butchery that mirrors medieval public executions,” Barker wrote.

Big-fish tournaments -- regardless of type -- always include a weigh-in, according to James. The shark meat, he said, is cut up so it can be grilled and eaten.

Entry fees are $1,475 per boat, and about 80 are expected to participate this year. Fishing begins at 7 a.m. tomorrow and at 6:30 p.m. July 20.

Mental Marathon

At night, fishermen typically walk down the sidewalk from boat to boat trying to glean insight about water conditions and types of chum, or shark bait, said Danny Evans Jr., a 47-year-old machine-shop owner from Brockton, Massachusetts, who has participated in the tournament for almost two decades. He’s baffled by the souring relations with the town.

“Mentally, you are running a marathon,” he said, describing the concentration and second-guessing that occurs while fishing. Time drifting on the water is punctuated by the physical challenge of reeling in a shark weighing hundreds of pounds.

“You have to have your wits about you,” he said in a telephone interview before taking his 58-foot vessel to the Vineyard. He said he’s spent as much as $1,500 in fuel in a single day.

“It is very expensive,” he said.

Porbeagles, Threshers

Contest rules allow participants to catch only three types of shark -- the thresher, with its distinctive ribbon-like tail; the shortfin mako, the fastest species; and the porbeagle, a stout-bodied fish favored by sportsmen.

Overfishing last year prompted the federal government to prohibit commercial operators from taking the porbeagle, said Karyl Brewster-Geisz, a branch chief in the Highly Migratory Species Management Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Recreational fishermen are allowed one shark per trip, she said.

For businesses in Oak Bluffs, the tournament is a boon. They capitalize by selling shot glasses with sharks emblazoned on the side, baseball caps with brims that look bitten and shark-themed bottle openers.

Nancy’s Restaurant, a dockside establishment where the president and first lady Michelle Obama dined in 2011, makes twice as much money during shark week than on a typical weekend, said Dave Gaffey, the general manager. The restaurant displays an exact replica of a 1,221-pound mako landed in the 2001 tournament above the front door. The beast’s jaws -- teeth included -- hang inside.

Not all store owners like the event. Luke DeBettencourt, owner of The Corner Store, which sells dry goods, said shoplifting spikes.

“Do you think that they would let this happen in Edgartown?” he asked, referring to a sister village known for its annual regatta. “They would not have it.”

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