Controversy Plagues Oak Bluffs Contest; Scientists, Fishermen on One Side, Humane Society on the Other

Several years ago the Boston Big Game Fishing Club Monster Shark Tournament was widely viewed as a simple affair, an event that attracted top fishermen from up and down the East Coast and generated a moderate boost in business for local shops and restaurants.

Only a few people cared that sharks were being caught for sport, and few who visited the tournament weigh station considered the ethical aspects of the event.

But when ESPN began broadcasting the event three years ago, it was suddenly exposed to a worldwide audience - and interest and criticism of the tournament escalated.

Today the tournament has become a lightning rod for controversy.

Proponents of the three-day event - which begins Thursday and runs through Saturday - maintain it is one of the top sport fishing tournaments in the country and provides valuable specimens and data for scientists and shark researchers.

Critics, whose ranks increase every year, argue the event is inhumane and barbaric.

At the very least, they argue, the tournament sends the message that it is okay to catch and kill sharks for sport. At worse, they argue, the tournament depletes the shark population and traumatizes and damages the fish that are caught and released.

The event has also become highly political.

This past winter, Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group, launched an aggressive campaign to reel in this year's tournament, placing graphic advertisements in Island newspapers and on its web site. The society encouraged people to contact Oak Bluffs selectmen and the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. At one point, both the chamber of commerce and town hall were receiving hundreds of e-mails on a daily basis from people across the world.

John Grandy, a biologist and vice president for the humane society, told the Gazette yesterday he and several other society officials will be present at this weekend's event. Although selectmen approved a special permit allowing the group to pass out handbills near the town post office, far removed from the tournament weigh station, Mr. Grandy said representatives for the society will let their presence be known.

"I wouldn't necessarily call what we are planning a demonstration. But we are definitely going to be talking with people and sharing our views that this entire event is disgusting and disgraceful," Mr. Grandy said.

He said the society will be joined by representatives from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA).

"Despite what tournament supporters say, the tournament is not about science or conservation - it is about greed and cruelty, pure and simple," Mr. Grandy said.

Sharon Young, a marine issues field director for the humane society, points to studies by the United Nations that found that more than 100 million sharks are killed each year, and that global shark populations have declined by up to 80 per cent in the past 50 years.

Unlike prolific species such as herring, she said, long-living and slow-reproducing species such as sharks and whales can ill afford to be killed in large numbers.

"These are shocking statistics and they should incite us all to protect these magnificent and ancient creatures, not to seek to kill more of them. We no longer condone the killing of whales, yet the spectacle of killing large sharks continues to be sanctioned and even glorified in contests such as this one on Martha's Vineyard," she said.

But proponents of the event, including tournament organizer Steven James, dismiss the accusations as a smear campaign designed to further an agenda.

"All the tournament is to [the humane society] is an opportunity for them to propagate their religion. This is part of their sport fishing jihad, pure and simple. Before it was televised on ESPN, the humane society could care less about the tournament. But because it is nationally televised, and because it takes place on Martha's Vineyard, it is very attractive to them. It's a very visible event that helps them with fund-raising and donations. In the end, it all comes down to money for the society," Mr. James said.

Mr. James blamed the society for unfairly generating negative publicity about the tournament and for portraying the Vineyard in a negative light. He said tournament officials are dedicated to promoting ethical and conservative fishing practices and assisting state and federal agencies in scientific research programs.

He noted that officials recently increased the minimum weight limit for several categories of sharks - including thresher, porbeagle and mako - which could lead to a 99 per cent release rate in this year's tournament. The Boston Big Game Fishing Club has also paid for several sharks to be outfitted with tracking devices, which provide valuable scientific data, and also promote shark education.

"The bottom line is, the tournament does not target any species of sharks that are endangered," Mr. James said.

He rejected the claim that the practice of catch and release kills as many as 50 per cent of the sharks caught.

"That is a bald-faced lie. That is the kind of misinformation we are up against," he said.

At the middle of the controversy stands Gregory Skomal, a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries biologist and shark expert who has been affiliated with the shark tournament since it began in 1987. In a telephone interview with the Gazette yesterday, Mr. Skomal reiterated that the tournament is an opportunity to collect vital information and specimens for shark research.

When the Oak Bluffs selectmen considered ending the town's affiliation with the tournament this winter, Mr. Skomal appeared before the board to argue the value of the event.

Mr. Skomal said yesterday that he is not affiliated with or paid by ESPN or tournament organizers.

"My role in the tournament is mischaracterized," he said, adding:

"If either myself or the Department of Marine Fisheries is asked for technical advice on a matter, as was the case in regard to the shark tournament, it is something we routinely do. All we have done is state the facts."

Mr. Skomal said marine fisheries personnel have been sampling at Massachusetts big game fishing tournaments since 1987 through the federally funded Massachusetts Sport Fishing Tournament Monitoring Project. But he acknowledged that the event, especially this year, has become more political.

"It's definitely become the source for many different opinions. But that is what this country is all about," he said.