There’s something about bloody shark carcasses that brought out the worst in the summer crowd, says one official of the Martha’s Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs. So bad, in fact, that this week they ended the controversial Monster Shark Tournament.
With those fearsome trophies hanging on the pier, rows of razor teeth shining in the sun, came boatloads of drunken revelers, bar brawls, and even bodies passed out on the sidewalks from the potent mix of alcohol and shark mania, says Gail Barmakian, one of five Oak Bluffs selectmen. “It was a real frat-boy scene, a total circus,” she said in an interview. Barmakian’s colleagues decided to replace the shark tournament with an annual hunt for tuna, marlin, and swordfish, smaller marine game she and others hope will draw a more subdued crowd.
For more than 25 years, boat crews gathered at this gateway town to the resort island where President Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama vacation. Each team would submit the heaviest shark it landed on Friday and on Saturday, and the highest two-day total won. In 2008, the grand prize was a $50,000 boat. Usually held in July when crowds are at their peak, the event garnered relatively little attention until 2004, when ESPN televised it. Could the masses—along with incensed animal lovers—be far behind? The Humane Society of the U.S. targeted the Monster Shark Tournament as part of its campaign against shark killings. The finned set trolling the waters of Nantucket Sound found another champion in Wendy Benchley, widow of Jaws author Peter Benchley and president of the board of Shark Savers. Her husband’s book was made into the popular 1975 Steven Spielberg movie, parts of which were filmed on the island.
“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,” Benchley told my Bloomberg News colleague Annie Linskey last year.
The end of the tournament comes after a chain of events that began last year when Oak Bluffs voters passed a nonbinding referendum insisting that tournament participants catch and release the sharks. At the same time, the Long Island town of Montauk held its shark tournament as a catch-and-release affair for the first time in 43 years. And in October, the Martha’s Vineyard Times reported that the founder of its contest, Steve James, said he was moving the tournament to Newport, R.I. James was never able to make good on that threat; he died in January when his skiff overturned in icy waters during a duck hunting trip.
Oak Bluffs hotelier Peter Martell typically took in $80,000 for three sold-out nights at his 95-room Wesley Hotel overlooking the harbor. He says he’s worried the new tournament won’t bring close to that revenue. One local study 10 years ago estimated the town and its businesses took in $2 million to $3 million.
Martell says ending the event was shortsighted. The free flow of alcohol was the issue, he says. “The sharks weren’t the problem.”