A fish hanging by its tail on a weigh-in stand is a common sight at any big-game tournament, as are photographers snapping shots of the winner. But when tournament workers wave their hands in front of a camera’s lens and town police escort the shutterbug away from the festivities, it falls outside the realm of the commonplace.
When Steven James started his Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament on Martha’s Vineyard back in 1986, he knew he was going to rub a few folks the wrong way. He wasn’t a native of the Massachusetts community, and New Englanders have the reputation for turning a frosty shoulder to outsiders. But it was neither the denizens nor the summer-cottage owners who raised the biggest ruckus. It was a different greenhorn organization.
“When you see sharks hauled up on docks…it encourages the notion that the only value of these animals is in their deaths,” says Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) spokesman John Grandy, who holds a doctorate in wildlife ecology and management from the University of Massachusetts. “We’re against the killing,” he adds. According to Grandy, the activist organization chose this particular tournament to protest after a picture of a record-breaking tiger shark made the rounds on national news programs in 2005. (Tiger sharks are no longer allowed in the tournament, which currently gives points for only threshers, makos, and porbeagles.)
James, who is also president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club and a board member of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel, is unabashed about his opinion on the protesters’ stance. “If they weren’t so busy trying to make money for themselves with this PR stunt,” he says, “they’d be touting the event.” To back up his tournament’s record on conservation, James points to the fact that he works closely with both the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the NMFS Apex Predators Investigation based in Narragansett, Rhode Island. He says that the tournament is the largest source of both organizations’ catch, release, and tag data. “I’ve also spent $16,000 on satellite tags,” James continues, “and the data is…donated to state and federal fishery scientists.” Academics from around the world attend the event every year to collect DNA and perform biopsies on the catch.
James believes the contest’s governing rules promote conservation as well, “We have the highest minimum-weight requirement of any shark tournament in the world.” There’s also a 100-point punishment if you show up with an underweight fish. “I am a guy who cares about fishery management; and I’m waist-deep in the game of fishery management. I make my living from fishing stocks—I want to see them rebuilt. [The HSUS] is trying to blame the recreational fishery for the decline of sharks…it’s simply not true.”
According to the HSUS’ Web site, more than 100 million sharks are killed every year worldwide, which works out to roughly 11,000 sharks an hour. The 2008 Monster Shark Tournament kept a total of 26 sharks out of around 2,500 that were caught and released over two days. Even Grandy concedes that the majority of the impact on the predator’s population comes from commercial fisheries, but remains firm in his opposition to recreational fishing’s “wanton destruction” saying, “Many of the sharks that are caught and released in these tournaments die as a result of injuries that they receive.” James strongly disputes this assertion, stating that scientific research by the state of Massachusetts puts the mortality for catch-and-release at less than one percent.
This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.