Some came to revel in a summer weekend on the harbor, and others jostled for a prime spot to see the action. Some happened upon the hubbub, curious to see what all the fuss was about, and a few came to protest.
The word of the day was sharks: it was shouted when people saw a boat coming in with a telltale fin or tail, and T-shirts, hats, balloons and stuffed animals bore the image of the fish.
On Friday and Saturday, the Oak Bluffs harbor was home to the 26th annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament, a weekend that has fueled passionate extremes — hundreds of people of all ages came to watch, revel or compete to catch the biggest sharks, and others protested, saying the event is inhumane and damaging to shark species.
The tournament, sponsored by Boston Big Game Fishing Club, has large cash prizes: the winning boat receives $20,000 in cash. The entry fee for a boat is between $1,475 and $1,575.
According to Steven James, president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, 103 boats were registered and fishermen brought in a total of 16 sharks. Nine met the minimum weight requirement for the tournament.
The winner, caught by the Lady Diana, was a 447-pound porbeagle shark. In second place, by a pound, was a 446-pound thresher shark caught by the Island Rose.
Mr. James told the Gazette yesterday that he’s an advocate for the health of shark species himself, and that the tournament meets federal and state guidelines.
The tournament is “not having an impact on the local shark population,” he said, and noted that if it did, it would be shut down. He also said he runs a strict tournament, having harsh words for those that bring in sharks that fall far below the weight limit.
He said those protesting the event were out of touch with reality, and did not understand the tournament.
In the past, the Humane Society and other environmental groups have protested the tournament, and over the winter, the shark tournament was a topic of discussion when the group Vineyarders Against Shark Tournaments implored the Oak Bluffs selectmen to halt the tournament. State biologist Gregory Skomal came before the board in March to say that the tournament is mostly catch-and-release, presenting data showing that in 2011, 98 per cent of the roughly 1,250 sharks caught at the tournament were released back into the water. He said the shark tournament has a minimal impact on the health of shark species.
“The question here is probably more philosophical than conservation-based,” he told the selectmen.
Selectmen also pointed to a 2007 referendum in which the town voted to keep the shark tournament.
While fishermen competed to bring in the biggest fish, what was really prized on Saturday was a view of the action. People of all ages lined the inner harbor and jostled to get a glimpse of the weigh station near Our Market.
Before the weigh-in, it was easy to tell which boats had sharks; beyond the little black flags indicating that the boats were part of the tournament, one could just look for the crowds.
Curious people gathered near Thunder, a boat from Boston that had a shark on board. A delivery of ice arrived to put around the shark.
Then there were crowds around the Ocean Runner boat, which had a thresher shark tail sticking out of the boat’s hold. “It’s interesting. I’m getting to see fins,” said Tracey Wilson, of Brockton, one of the bystanders.
Ms. Wilson has been coming to her family’s house in Oak Bluffs for years, she said, but just heard about the tournament. “The boats are beautiful,” she added.
And while she said she saw some protesters, “everyone’s excited.”
“I love it,” said her daughter, Malika Jamal. “It’s interesting to me, just to see something that I’m so afraid of, face to face.”
Ms. Jamal added that she is afraid of sharks when swimming in Vineyard waters.
“[Sharks are] a life, too . . . but when I’m in the water, I wouldn’t want to be swimming with them,” Ms. Wilson added.
The harbor was filled with boats (several people commented that it looked like a floating tailgate party), music, splashes and cheers. Some people got closer to the action on rafts. A paddleboarder and an empty bottle of rum floated around the harbor.
Boats from the state environmental police, the sheriff’s office, and the harborsmaster were on hand.
Also in the water was a kayaker at the helm of a yellow kayak that had a sign sticking out of it: “Killing sharks to win prizes is a crime vs. nature.” Several onlookers took his picture.
A handful of protesters, some from Vineyarders against Shark Tournaments, others from the organization Earthrace, were there holding signs: “Don’t be afraid of sharks . . . be afraid for them,” and “Replace hooks with hearts.” Nearby, there was brisk business for shark tournament T-shirts and hats.
“Thanks for the good work, keep up the good work,” one passerby told the protesters.
West Tisbury fisherman Anthony Gude was one of those advocating against the tournament. “There’s no reason to kill them — there are too few as it is,” he said. “The reproductive rates of these sharks is so slow . . . it’s not sustainable.”
His son Eddy, nine, was wearing a shirt with a shark on it, and holding a white sign in the shape of a shark that said “Catch and release only.” He hopes to be a marine biologist. “It’s horrible . . . because there’s no reason to kill them,” he said.
But another father and son had a different perspective. “It’s pretty cool,” said Tom Andrade, of Plympton, who was waiting to watch the weigh-in with his son, Ben, 10. The two came down for the day to see the shark tournament for the first time.
“I think they’re really cool,” Ben said of sharks.
Mr. Andrade said they’d seen a couple of thresher sharks. Sharks are “just an interesting species of animal,”Mr. Andrade said.
As for the protesters, “I haven’t given them much thought,” he said. “They’re not going to stop me from enjoying the weigh-in.”
Come 3:30 p.m., the weigh-in started, and a few sharks were hoisted up to cheers. The first was Ocean Runner’s thresher shark weighing just more than 400 pounds. The crew posed for pictures with the shark, then decamped to make room for the next boat. The shark came in fifth in the tournament.
The atmosphere extended beyond the harbor. Fishbones Cafe advertised mako shark bites, and on Circuit avenue, Mad Martha’s offered shark-attack ice cream: vanilla ice cream dyed blue, with raspberry swirl representing blood and chunks of white chocolate to represent shark teeth, an employee said.
After the weigh-in, people stopped by to look at the heads and fins of the sharks, which were displayed on the edge of boats. Nearby, a mylar balloon shaped like a shark batted about in the wind.
One shark fisherman who went by the name, Mark, said his boat, based in Boston, caught a 100-pound mako shark this year — too small by tournament standards.
“It’s hours and hours of boredom, followed by moments of sheer terror,” he said as he cleaned off his equipment.
“Cleaning up, getting ready to party,” he said.
During the weigh-in, Catherine Hovey and her son, Coles, seven, from Brooklyn, were having a bit of an “existential crisis,” Ms. Hovey said, about the tournament. “I like it,” she said, but the two had concerns.
“They should weigh it and put it back in,” said Coles, who was wearing a shark tournament hat.
Ms. Hovey, a fourth-generation Vineyard visitor, said she had been to the tournament before, but “I don’t remember such a reaction.”
“It doesn’t really make sense,” Coles said, though he later learned the tournament was mostly catch-and-release, and said he felt better about the whole thing.
“I still like shark week a lot,” he added. But he had a suggestion: “Maybe it should be a monster jellyfish tournament.”