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Battle for sharks off Martha's Vineyard

The Monster Shark Tournament in Oak Bluffs, Mass., pulls in competitive anglers, animal rights activists, and scientists who want a closer look at the massive ocean predators.

August 16, 2012|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • A shark is hoisted off a boat to be weighed at the 26th annual Monster Shark Tournament in Oak Bluffs, Mass.
A shark is hoisted off a boat to be weighed at the 26th annual Monster Shark… (Tina Susman, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Oak Bluffs, Mass. —  

This was the moment Matt Connelly had waited years for: the sudden yank on the line, the violent tug that dragged him to the edge of the boat and nearly into the cold Atlantic.

After 90 exhausting minutes, the battle was over.

Connelly and his crew mates peered down at the massive fish beside their 29-foot boat, Rogue Angel. They pulled out a tape measure to make sure their eyes weren't playing tricks on them. Finally, convinced the fish was big enough to haul in, they gaffed it, guessing its weight at 275 pounds.

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They were off by more than 50 pounds. The fish weighed 334 pounds when it was hoisted onto the scales on Day One of the Monster Shark Tournament, which depending on your point of view is a premier sportfishing contest, a bloody assault on an elegant species, or a chance for scientists to get a close-up look at some of the ocean's biggest predators.

"Controversy sells," said Steven James, the tournament organizer, dismissing the opposition to the 26-year-old grandaddy of shark tournaments.

"Are they hurting me? No, they're not," James said of his critics as he drove through the quiet streets of Martha's Vineyard before dawn, delivering 40-pound buckets of chum and boxes of bait to competitors.

By the time he finished, hundreds of anglers would be heading out to sea, hoping to bring in the biggest catch of the two-day tournament and claim tens of thousands of dollars in cash and prizes.

It is one of dozens of shark-fishing contests held each year in the United States. In recent years, some have bowed to pressure from animal rights and environmental groups to require competitors to release what they catch. But the Monster event goes on as is, its popularity fueled in part by a spate of shark-human encounters in the area that evoked images of "Jaws," the 1975 blockbuster film that was filmed nearby.

"The very most fundamental human, primal fear is the thought that you might be eaten alive," said James, who runs a charter fishing boat business south of Boston and is on a National Marine Fisheries Service advisory panel on migratory species.

He ticked off some of the state and federal regulations that govern the tournament: Sharks must meet minimum size limits or be released. Some species, such as great whites, are off-limits. Anglers must fight the fish one-on-one, without help from others on a boat — a battle than can last hours.

"It's an athletic endeavor that brings people to their knees," said James, who is also president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, which puts on the for-profit tournament.

The Humane Society and other groups say such tournaments are depleting the oceans of sharks and also fuel the idea that sharks are eating-machines rather than a vital species deserving of protection.

"These tournaments make a big deal of stringing the shark up, opening its mouth and showing its teeth. It's reinforcing the idea that these are bloodthirsty predators and that the only good shark is a dead shark," said Sharon Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society.

She noted that participation in the Monster tournament was down: This year, 102 boats were registered, less than half as many as six years ago.

"I think people are starting to see sharks as something besides a dangerous animal," Young said.

But there's no question that James and the Monster Shark Tournament have the upper hand in Oak Bluffs, whose leaders have resisted demands to oust the event.

Across the picturesque resort of winding roads, colorful gingerbread cottages and bars lining the lively wharf, shark mania abounds. Crowded shops sell shark T-shirts, shark baseball caps, fuzzy shark toys and shark mugs. "No vacancy" signs hang outside every hotel and inn. A giant shark's mouth opens to form the mail slot at one hotel.

Participants in the tournament paid registration fees of about $1,500 per boat.

This year's was the first shark tournament for Connelly, 30, a horticultural technologist at Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum. He had waited a long time to join the crew of the Rogue Angel, which is captained by his friend, Steve McDonald, a financial analyst.

When one of the four-man crew dropped out this year, Connelly got his spot, and on July 20 about 5 a.m., the crew began the two-hour trip from Oak Bluffs out to sea.

They dropped three lines into the water at 7 a.m. Buckets of smelly chum, designed to lure sharks to the lines, spread oily slicks across the water. As the sun rose higher, Connelly headed below to get something to drink.

That's when the shark bit.

"It was just tearing line off the reel," said Connelly, who had just come upstairs with a Coke in one hand and a Gatorade in the other. Someone yelled at him to put down his drinks and pick up the rod. The fish was swimming toward the boat, making it difficult to set the hook into it. Connelly leaned back and yanked, hard.

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