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Report by Earthrace Martha’s Vineyard team: Sandi Sullivan, Maare Liiv and Donald U.Newe

The Earthrace Conservation Organization team of volunteers travelled to Martha’s Vineyard (MV) this summer in opposition to the 26th Annual Monster Shark Tournament held in the quaint town of Oak Bluffs.

Prior to their arrival, they circulated an on line petition to bring awareness of the global critical plight of the shark. The team went to MV with hopes to change the Tournament to a tag and release only, and to campaign for a ban on the tournament in the future. They obtained over 2500 signatures and numerous comments from all over the world. The petition was hand delivered to the Oak Bluffs town officials and selectmen two days before the tournament.

The team joined forces with local ‘Vineyarders’ who also oppose the tournament, with the hope that they can put it on the voters ballot next year. The majority of locals on the island oppose this event. Those locals have formed a Facebook group called “Vineyarders Against Shark Tournaments” and some of them were involved in releasing a CD, “Hold On… We’re Coming”, with protest songs prior to the tournament.

The list of big sponsors of this year’s tournament included Narragansett Beer, Anheuser-Busch, Monster Energy Drinks, Local Hooker Rods and Brewees Eyewear. The island thrives on the revenue this event brings each summer, including lining the pockets of those that orchestrate the tournament. Participation fee for a boat is between $ 1,475 and $ 1,575. From about 100 participating boats, the organizers are earning quite a sum!

The award money for the participators to win is big too – $ 20, 000 in cash! Bets are always involved, and iIn 2008, an investigation by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) also revealed the illegal gambling that goes on during the tournament.

The town of Oak Bluffs was letting everyone know that it was the shark capital – the tourists flock to purchase Jaws T-shirts, souvenirs, eating their ice cream cones, while openly drinking alcohol in the harbor and on their yachts. Businesses in town and the front of Wesley Hotel was swarming with 2012 tournament’s official merchandise business – t-shirts, sweat shirts and caps were on sale for everybody to purchase (in the price range of $ 15 – $ 40).

Shark steak was openly advertised on the menu at The Red Cat Restaurant, and several business men and women declined to allow us to hang our posters or leave our leaflets within their shops with some claiming that they supported us, yet admitting that revenue is the priority. Yet, they all claim to love conservation of the shark during the Jaws Festival in August following the Monster Shark Tournament. The Jaws Festival clearly brings awareness of the conservation efforts regarding the shark and also brings much revenue, whilst being a bit hypocritical – honoring the movie Jaws and Peter Benchley, then killing sharks for gambling and sport the month before!

The Earthrace team brainstormed with locals, chatted with tourists, debated with a few shark wranglers (with some of them approaching the Earthrace team and even questioning themselves about the possible consequences their actions could have), handed out leaflets while educating people about the statistics of the particular at risk species being caught at the tournament.

The Earthrace conservationists received direct opposition and attention from the event commentator / head-organizer and president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club (NNGFC), Steven James, who claimed publicly that he enjoyed harassing “animal rights activists”. The organizers were trying to use a frightening tactic to try to keep away the conservationists and animal rights activists from the tournament grounds.

Steven James even went as far as threatening a peaceful Earthrace protester with the police and ejection from the site, when all the protestor was doing was holding a sign saying “Shame & Disgrace” in a public area, not breaking any law. In addition, Mr. James motivated the spectators to form a whistle choir and to boo the conservationist. But all of this remained just an empty threat and the Earthrace conservationist did not retreat from his spot!

Another Earthrace team member was under a constant verbal abuse from one of the Monster Shark Tournament staff members, whilst other local opposers to the Tournament were pelted with coins and other missiles, while the crowd called them “old hippies” and told them to get lost.

Analysis of the crowd
The crowd of spectators could be overall divided into two groups – those who were there simply to enjoy this form of spectacle without wanting (or rather refusing) to know any details on the plight of sharks, and those who were seemingly distressed and in a doubting position of whether such an event was necessary.

The latter group was keen to enter into the dialogue with the conservationists, asking questions, listening to the different point of views and gladly taking a look at our leaflet. It could be concluded that what is lacking among people is the basic knowledge and education about sharks and their situation in the oceans.

During the tournament, one encounter with a young girl about 10 years old was very moving. As she turned her back away from the massive 446 lb. bloody shark hanging from the gallows, she sternly begged and repeated, “Daddy can we please leave now?” As she continued to ask him this, she apparently googled ‘thresher shark’ on her cell phone, and said “Daddy that shark is on the ‘at risk’ list, can we please leave now!?” One of our team leaned over and calmly validated her point, saying, “yes that species is vulnerable, you’re absolutely right, and this tournament will end one day, in our lifetime.”

Her father turned to the conservationist and said to his daughter, “Ok, let’s go – we’re leaving now!” The children can make the connection; we need to reach the youth with clear concise education on ocean conservation, not lies or propaganda from a TV series, aquarium or marine park. Let’s help them connect the dots.

There are, however, other stories to tell from the crowd, one where young girls (about age 10 and 12) were very enthusiastically smiling and cheering, saying, “Look, mom, there’s a dead shark!” or “Look, they’re bringing in another one!” Meanwhile, their mom was fully supporting this, nodding her head in approval and telling her daughters how good and tasty the shark meat was and how she would like to have a taste of it again. The commentator and event organizer, Steven James, also stressed to the spectators how tasty the shark meat is and encouraged them to take a walk down the harbour, to step on the boats that had caught some sharks and to ask them for some shark meat to take home for cooking!

Unfortunately, none of the spectators were informed about how toxic the “edible” shark meat actually is and what kind of health-risks it contains.

Shark meat contains methyl mercury, which is extremely toxic and can cause serious damage to the nervous system, have an effect on young children and can also effect the development of a fetus so is therefore not recommended for pregnant women. Consumption of anything over 0,1 microgram per kilogram body weight per day is the amount that is considered dangerous by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Tournament rules and results
According to the rules of the Tournament, three kinds of shark are allowed to be brought in for the weigh-in – makos, porbeagles and threshers.

The minimum weight set for the porbeagles and threshers is 250 lbs.; and for the makos 200 lbs. If a shark weighs less than 25 lbs below the weight limit, the boat will receive zero points. If it weighs more than 25 pounds less, the boat is penalized 100 points. The total points calculated from the sharks’ weight from each day determines the winner.

At this year’s Tournament, the total numbers of sharks weighed-in and hung on the gallows was 16:

8 Mako’s/Weight (lbs): 411, 231, 198, 186, 185, 184, 128
5 Treshers/Weight (lbs): 446, 403, 334, 319, 283
3 Porbeagles/Weight (lbs): 447, 440, not recorded

Only nine sharks out of the sixteen that were brought in to the weigh-in station actually met the minimum weight requirement! So a lot of underweight sharks were brought in to the weight-in (teams only got negative points for this). This implies that the sharks still remaining in the oceans today are becoming generally smaller in size.

The sharks are often taken before they even have a chance of reaching reproductive age, there is no discrimination between taking male and female sharks from the ocean during the Tournament, so often those caught that are big enough are indeed females of reproductive age.

Usually though, the undersized sharks and sharks of other species (mainly the blue sharks) are caught, then tagged and released on the spot. However, there is no way to be certain that the sharks the fishermen end up catching, tagging and releasing will survive afterwards as we have no way of knowing what goes on in the boats (there is no live footage from the boats broadcast to the spectators on the shore or made available afterwards).

We question the hooking methods and techniques used, which can play a decisive role in the survival of each shark. It also depends on how much the sharks have been putting up a fight and how sharks are physically handled when caught. There’s no proper research done on this subject yet, though it is claimed that circle hooks are supposed to be the easiest ones to remove and are therefore most safe for the shark. J-hooks therefore can be more dangerous. Tags that are claimed to be used in the tournament are the simplest numbered tags, which provide information on date, location, gear, size and sex of a shark. This is a non-expensive tagging method and should be an easier task for recreational and commercial fishermen to handle.

The Monster Shark Tournament calls itself a science-supporting tournament and has biologists and researchers lined up after the shark is taken down from the gallows and the weigh-in, first to measure the shark and then to cut it open with a knife to examine its internal organs. Dr. Lisa Natanson, a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service, has explained: “We dissect the sharks for a variety of studies including age and growth, reproduction and stomach contents. All the data eventually goes into studies on these species.” 1

Each time at the moment where the blood suddenly runs out, the crowd seems started. The stomach content and organs are taken out and packed in re-sealable plastic bags for further examination, and within short period of time, the big fish is de-finned, chopped into pieces, put into the boxes and delivered to the team that caught it. We witnessed the heart of one of the weighed-in sharks still beating when they dissected the fish and took it out!

We also question the working methods and motives of the local marine biologist from Massachusetts’s Fish & Game Department’s Marine Fisheries Division, Greg Skomal, because of his latest involvement with the controversial Ocearch team (led by Chris Fischer) know from, firstly, the National Geographic program “Shark Men”, which was later moved to History Channel under a name of “Shark Wranglers”.

The research methods the team uses on the Great White Sharks in those programmes are brutal and life-threatening for the sharks, and the SPOT-tagging method the team uses are known to cause a heavy damage to the dorsal fin.

Furthermore, in a newspaper article he has claimed that although he likes all catch and release tournaments, ”by imposing that, I’d be telling a guy he can’t catch a fish to eat” 2. Yet as a scientist and a biologist, he should be fully aware of what toxins the shark meat contains and of the threats to human health eating shark meat can cause. Surely it would be his responsibility to share this knowledge with the Tournament fishermen and with the Tournament spectators?

We are pleased to report that the numbers of participating boats have been decreasing from year to year. In 2005, there was a record 245 boats participating; last year (2011), the total number of participating boats was approximately 120, and this year according to the organizer, 103 boats were registered.

There is a question remaining about how far out to the sea the boats have to travel to bring in the big sharks. The boats leave from the harbor very early in the morning – the first one left at 3.30am and according to the rules, participants are allowed to start fishing at 7am.

We heard from one source that the participators even have to go as far as over 60 miles offshore to catch the sharks, but apparently there is a silent-contract between the participators and the organizers that the public is not informed in detail about where the sharks are actually caught.

The winning boat, Lady Diana, brought in their caught 447 lbs porbeagle shark hours after the weigh-in station on the first day had closed for the participators and for the public. However, since they had called ahead that they had a shark on board and were on their way (this is allowed in the rules), the Tournament staff had rushed in for the late evening weigh-in just for this, and it was a weigh-in that the spectators never had a chance to actually see.

After the weigh-ins
Post weight-in hours and the end of the Tournament is a colorful sight and that’s when the real celebration begins. Spectators and tourists are strolling around the harbor area, looking at the boats, taking to the boat crews, standing in line near boats to ask for some shark meat to take home to and waiting for photo opportunities with the caught sharks (or the remains of them!).

Shark fins and their cut-off heads are displayed on the boats as trophies of a successful Tournament. The fishermen are laughing, talking and drinking alcohol; the music is playing loud and girls are brought on the boats. Some boats have even put bras or thongs on a display! This continues until the early hours of the morning.

Selectwoman Gail Barmakian compared the nature of the event to a “frat-party” and Police Chief Erik Blake also brought up the bottleneck of crowds at the event, saying, “problems are caused by overindulgence in alcohol, overcrowding at the harbor, inadequate rest room facilities, the impact to the perception and character of the town and the fact that ferries bring over “literally hundreds of people” for the event.”3

This year, the Police Chief also said that, “Selectmen said they had received dozens of complaints from residents about fights, public drinking, public urination, and inappropriate use of town property.”4 his is all a direct consequence of the Monster Shark Tournament weekend!

The local politicians and the vast majority of Selectmen love this event and the revenue it brings in for the town and local businesses. In a recent town Selectmen’s meeting on the 9th of October 2012, a catch-and-release petition with 10 signatures was on the agenda (10 signatures automatically puts it under discussion), but the Selectmen voted against it being put up for a ballot (with the exception of Selectman Gail Barmakian).

Now, advocates for a catch and release tournament must get 10% of registered voters to sign this petition in order to get it on the ballot. This means gaining the votes of 350 people for the ballot in April 2013. To collect the necessary signatures, one petition has been placed in the Good Dog Goods shop, where one of the local activists will do her best to convince people to sign it. It is clear that real change will only come from local pressure of the registered voters on Martha’s Vineyard but we will continue to do all we can to support their campaign!

In conclusion, as a result of our first hand observation, we believe the Tournament needs bigger pressure and action from the inside (the locals, those who are registered voters on Martha’s Vineyard) first of all to turn the tide and to change the Tournament to either a fully catch and release one or to close it completely. However, we also see pressure from the outside world as being of great importance.

Further education among the spectators and Islanders is of equal import. When the main education and shark conservation points seem to come to the island after the tournament when Jawsfest takes place in August, we feel it would be important to have these kinds of events before the Monster Shark Tournament, as well as and especially at the same time as the tournament! It would give those so far unaware people an opportunity to see both sides of the coin and to choose which side they want to be on armed with the facts!

Finally, it would be nice to read the scientific articles resulting from ‘research’ undertaken on the sharks that have been caught, tagged and released during the long years of the Monster Shark Tournament. What kind of results and conclusions have been drawn from data collected from the species brought into the weigh-in station whose internal organs and stomach contents have been collected? To date, we have been unable to find anything publicly available.

*Update: Due to pressure on the town of Oak Bluffs, there is no more tournament at Martha’s Vineyard. The last one took place in July 2013. Earthrace suggested (understanding that the Tournament weekend brings approx 3 million usd to the Town) a ‘catch and release’ rule.The Town council agreed with it,  only the tournament head-organizer and president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club (NNGFC), disagreed. This was the end of the annual Monster Shark Tournament on Martha’s Vineyard after 27 years of existence.

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