Petition Seeks To Change Controversial Shark Tournament To 'Catch And Release'; Officials Demur

National Marine Fisheries scientist Lisa Natanson, left, and professor Joanna Borucinska take samples of a Mako shark at the 26th annual Monster Shark Tournament.Cape Cod Times/Zhenru Zhang

A resolution to make the annual Oak Bluffs shark tournament all catch-and-release will be on the April town meeting warrant and election ballot, but it has no teeth, town officials say.

Tournament organizer Steven James said Thursday the petition pits animal rights activists against fishermen.

"I'm not particularly concerned about it," James said of the petition. "This is not the first time for this group. If this were to go to an all-release tournament, there would be no tournament. There would be no business. There would be no tourists."

But petitioners with the group Vineyarders Against Shark Tournaments said the nonbinding resolution is a compromise that ends the public spectacle of shark carcasses and helps preserve the town's charm.

For the last 26 years, the town has hosted the Monster Shark Tournament in July, run by a for-profit company in Marshfield. The tournament, to be held July 18 through 20 this year, is one of a handful held in state waters each year, Massachusetts environmental analyst and shark expert Greg Skomal said Thursday.

The petition's wording is simple: "Effective with this vote, all shark fishing tournaments held in the town of Oak Bluffs shall be catch and release only." It was signed by 436 registered voters and filed at town hall Dec. 28, Town Clerk Deborah Ratcliff said Thursday.

About 98 percent of the sharks caught during the tournament — a number in the hundreds — are released, James said. The remaining 2 percent — 16 in 2012 — are caught then taken to the harbor and displayed dead in the catch-and-land part of the tournament. Skomal confirmed those numbers.

Boats pay $1,475 to get into the tourney, James said. Only mako, thresher and porbeagle sharks qualify, he said.

The petition seeks to stop that aspect of the tournament, specifically the "public spectacle, the hauling up of the carcasses and the rowdiness," petitioner Peter Palches of Oak Bluffs said.

The petitioners organized a little over a year ago.

"Our group is aware of the economic value of tourism to Oak Bluffs," Palches said Thursday. "We don't belittle the need to attract people to our town. But we think it also endangers what we have. We view the catch-and-release as a compromise. We're not out to eliminate all aspects of the tournament."

The petitioners needed 10 percent of the town's registered voters — 352 out of 3,522 — to place the measure on the ballot. Passage at the April 9 annual town meeting and at the April 11 town election would have no direct effect on the tournament itself, Town Administrator Robert Whritenour said Thursday. Currently the tournament operates under state fishing regulations, but also obtains a few town permits for boat slip rentals, Whritenour said.

"We've been advised that the town doesn't have a major role," he said.

If the tournament adheres to state regulations, then "we're not going to take any kind of position," Skomal said.

State officials ask tournament participants about their catches at the dock, and measure catches brought to shore, as they do with other fishing tournaments, Skomal said. Even if the tournament converted to all catch-and-release, the state would still survey the participants, he said.

"Our shark researchers do sample animals landed during the tournament, as we do with several other major shark tourneys in the region," federal fisheries spokeswoman Teri Frady said by email Thursday. "The tournament is not held so we can sample, nor are we (or they) required to sample at them."

All tournaments that target highly migratory species in U.S. waters have to register with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Frady said.

The public display on the dock is what makes the tournament a success, James said. Hundreds of people come down to the event each day, he said.

Local businesses have told municipal leaders that the shark tournament is a "very strong contributor" to the summer economy, Whritenour said.

"It's certainly a very popular event, but there are other festivals that draw a lot of people as well," he said.

The Humane Society of the United States supports making all shark fishing tournaments catch-and-release only, Luke Tipple, a director of shark-friendly initiatives with the society, said Thursday.

The types of sharks caught during the Oak Bluffs tournament need more federal protections, he said.


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