Max Hart -- The simmering heat of a July weekend served as the backdrop on a cold December night this week when the Oak Bluffs selectmen debated the future of the Monster Shark tournament, one of the town's biggest events of the summer.
At its meeting Tuesday evening in the Oak Bluffs library meeting room, the board opened a discussion on whether to continue allowing the Boston Big Game Fishing Club to use the town harbor for the three-day event. The tournament takes place annually on the third weekend in July and attracts sports fishermen from up and down the East Coast. This summer will be the tournament's 20th anniversary.
The event has grown exponentially in recent years and with it, so has criticism. This year in particular the tournament sparked controversy, with residents registering complaints about the boisterous behavior of participants and debating the ethics of shark fishing and the impact on Oak Bluffs harbor. The town has received letters on both sides of the issue from across the country.
Much of the new wave of criticism stems from increased exposure of the event. The tournament became a national spectacle two years ago when the cable sports network ESPN filmed the event and aired it as a four-part prime time series in the fall. The broadcasts were partly responsible for the large crowd on the bulkhead last year.
While selectmen took no formal action on the tournament on Tuesday, board chairman Gregory Coogan said the selectmen wanted to address the large volume of complaints and did not rule out the possibility of a future vote. He said the primary objective was to collect information and weigh the sentiments of the town.
"We have been famous for sharks for awhile now, haven't we?" Mr. Coogan joked at the outset.
Steve James, president of Boston Big Game and organizer of the three-day event, did not attend the meeting, nor did Greg Skomal, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries biologist who works closely with event organizers. Mr. Skomal oversees the tournament and inspects each animal that is brought into the weigh-in station. He has defended the tournament in the past as an important tool for studying sharks.
On Tuesday, the discussion ranged from opposing the killing of sharks to supporting the tournament's positive effects on the business community. Early sentiment suggested the board favored ending the town's involvement with the tournament altogether. Selectman Roger Wey started the discussion by saying the entire event has gotten out of hand.
"There's no need for it. It doesn't raise revenue for the town and I just don't see the value of this," Mr. Wey declared.
Selectman Kerry Scott agreed. "I don't think this is something I am proud of. When I see it on ESPN, it does not make me proud to be from Oak Bluffs. I am ashamed of it," she said.
Seeking the middle ground, Duncan Ross suggested putting the issue before voters.
"If we end it, I think we should first see how the town feels about it," he said. "I would suggest a non-binding question at next year's town meeting to get a feel for how people feel about this."
Mr. Coogan and Michael Dutton, however, took a more favorable tack and brought up the merits of the tournament.
"I agree that it has become a spectacle, but I feel differently about it and I don't think I would be so quick to call for its demise," Mr. Dutton said. "This event brings a significant amount of business to the community, and I can't say that I am in a position to abolish this thing."
While more ambivalent, Mr. Coogan recognized the event's appeal.
"This is not something I go to, but when I see huge crowds, I see people who want to see this," he said. "I could go either way."
The board looked to harbor master Todd Alexander and police chief Erik Blake for hard facts. Mr. Alexander acknowledged that the weekend is one of the busiest of the summer, but said most of the problems with harbor congestion stem from the small crafts full of spectators which flood the area around the weigh-in station. He said that while the harbor is at full capacity for the weekend, the event does not generate much additional revenue.
"The harbor is full every weekend in the summer if the weather is nice, and the only difference with the shark tournament is the guaranteed Thursday night," he said. "The surrounding businesses clearly make money, but as far as the harbor is concerned, it doesn't make much more than a normal weekend."
Mr. Blake said that while there have been problems with noise and public intoxication on the harbor in past years, the last tournament - while the largest yet - was well behaved.
Dennis daRosa of the Oak Bluffs Business Association and former selectman Richard Combra Sr., who owns several businesses in Oak Bluffs, argued that the tournament has surpassed the fireworks and Illumination Night as the town's biggest revenue-making weekend and pled with the board to keep it.
"The business community in general does not want to see this go," Mr. daRosa said. "It has become an event and yes, I think the negatives have to be addressed. Let's take away the negatives and show the organizers that we are trying to meet halfway."
"This is a significant piece of summer revenue," Mr. Combra agreed. "You should be working on changing things, not dissolving it."
Mr. Blake also suggested the board meet with Mr. Skomal before making a decision. Selectmen acknowledged not having enough information about the scientific benefits, if there are any.
In July, Mr. Skomal told the Gazette that the tournament provided a wealth of unique data about the health of certain shark populations not found anywhere else.
"Whether or not it is okay to kill sharks for sport, that's a philosophical discussion," Mr. Skomal said. "And as far as the conservation aspect is concerned, this event would not be held if the sharks were in any trouble.
"People have to remember that this is a fishing contest," he added. "How can you condone the striped bass and bluefish derby and not the Monster Shark tournament?"
On Tuesday night, the board agreed to invite Mr. Skomal to the next meeting and continue accepting public comment. Selectmen also said they plan to invite Mr. James to a future meeting.
"This has just jumped and grown more than we thought or wished it would," Mr. Coogan said.
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