Monster Shark Tournament organizer and president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club Steven James will takes steps to control the crowd at the controversial Oak Bluffs event, he told selectmen at a meeting Thursday afternoon.
Mr. James’s visit before the board was a condition of approval for the harbor use permit issued by the selectmen for the event. The event will take place July 18 to 20.
Voters at the Oak Bluffs annual town meeting Tuesday decided in a nonbinding question to turn the tournament into a catch-and-release event in the future. The issue also appeared on the town election ballot yesterday. But the purpose of Thursday’s meeting, selectman and board chairman Kathy Burton said, was “to discuss this year’s tournament.”
“We’re not here to debate the merits of the shark tournament,” she said. “This is about the board and Mr. James, and certainly if there is discussion about the tournament I expect that at town meeting.”
Last year was a “tipping point” for the Monster Shark Tournament, harbor master Todd Alexander said. The Oak Bluffs police department made 21 arrests during the tournament weekend, and at a previous forum police chief Erik Blake reported that the staff had been overwhelmed.
“It’s happening, it’s a scene, whether you’re here to see sharks or not to see sharks,” Mr. Alexander said on Thursday. “Now, you can argue all you want about reasons, but it started.”
At the same time as crowds in Oak Bluffs have swelled, entrants in the tournament itself have dropped over the years, a fact Mr. James attributed to the tournament no longer being televised and to the poor economy. But the shift, selectmen said, had made the shark tournament more a spectacle than anything else.
“[In the tournament’s early days], there were more entrants, and it wasn’t so much a spectacle. . . . one of my concerns is the drinking and the fact that spectators have sort of overpowered the whole thing,” selectman Gail Barmakian said.
She asked if there was anything Mr. James could do to help mitigate the drinking and the noise.
“My impression of most of the people that come to the weigh station, those aren’t the people that are partying hard,” Mr. James said, acknowledging that there was “some crossover” every year. Part of the burden was on Oak Bluffs itself, he said, which would need to reach out to the bars and taverns to help.
Mr. James said he would reinstate a former practice of including “10 Things You Don’t Want To Do In Oak Bluffs” — a list with open-container and public intoxication laws, among other regulations — in the program guide.
“I have no issue sending that out and posting it at the Wesley [hotel] so people will be reminded,” he said.
Beyond the matter of crowd control, selectmen were concerned about Mr. James’s use of the PA system on the harborfront.
“While the banter is often very entertaining, we would appreciate if [there was] maybe a little more care [to] keep with the educational and informational focus,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said. “Just an attempt to crack the positive message and edit out some of the dialogue.”
“I’m willing to accommodate that,” Mr. James said.
Mr. Coogan noted that interaction between Mr. James and shark tournament protestors at the event was a source of controversy as well.
“I think that the interacting with the protestors doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Education is one thing, I think taunting is another.”
Mr. James suggested having a designated area for protest at the event, but this was rebuked by several Oak Bluffs residents in attendance at the meeting, who objected to the idea on grounds of free speech concerns. Town resident Deborah Dean pointed out that the harborfront was property of Oak Bluffs taxpayers.
Ms. Burton and Mr. Santoro emphasized that the safety of all those at the tournament, whether entrants, onlookers or protestors, was the primary concern of the board.
The group also discussed the sale of shark tournament T-shirts on the town-owned property at the weigh station, where other vendors are not permitted to sell, with Mr. James saying he would move the shirt sales to a different location.
Ms. Barmakian raised the possibility of holding the tournament during a different, less-trafficked weekend on the Vineyard. Mr. James said he was not opposed to the idea, but that fishing was at its peak during July and he would have a difficult time securing chum in June. A later date could work, he said, noting a potential complicating factor as shark fishing season began to overlap with tuna fishing season.
“Who knows?” Mr. James said, “Maybe that’s the best way to go about this.”