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Great White Sharks in New England | Feeding Frenzy

And so we wait, a few thousand eager spectators, congregating at the southwest side of the harbor in anticipation of the first boat and a look at the tournament’s first shark. Teenage boys dangle their legs over the water on the sea wall, while their bikini-clad girlfriends stretch out next to them. Slightly inebriated, swaying to the music blaring from nearby speakers, an older crowd in dinghies mingles over in the harbor. The largest contingent stand and sweat under the beating sun around a metal fence marking off the weigh station.

That’s where I am when a bowling ball of man standing next to me pointedly asks, “You wanna see what a shark can do?”

And really, that’s the question we’re all asking: What can a shark do? What’s it capable of doing? By seeing a real one, maybe we’ll get a few answers. This guy, though, already has a good idea, and he’s more than eager to show me. With a deep, loud laugh he places his hand on my left shoulder and pulls up his right pant leg, revealing a long scar that wraps around his shin. It’s a lasting imprint from a nasty shark bite he received a couple of years ago while trying to haul in a fish on a small boat somewhere between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. “One hundred and seventy stitches,” he says nonchalantly. “Lost a lot of blood.” He laughs. “No more shark fishing.”

But he’s not ready to give up at least seeing what others have battled for, and for that he can thank Steve James. James, whose background is in marketing and industrial design, is the man behind the tournament. He’s a one-man show, a powerful energy force who demands a lot from his volunteers and from the fishing captains who have an eye on the prizes, which total well into six figures in cash and equipment. There are strict weight limits, and boats are allowed to place only three species: mako, porbeagle, and thresher. It’s why at the end of the weekend the contestants will have killed only 13 sharks.

The tournament goes back to the mid-1980s, when the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, the outfit that oversees the event, was created by a small collection of Boston athletes and sports personalities–Bobby Orr, John Havlicek, and Curt Gowdy among them. But it was a sleepy little event, one that for the first decade of its existence couldn’t compare with the likes of the more-celebrated shark hunts in places like Montauk and Florida. By the mid-1990s Orr and the rest of the gang had relinquished their connection to Boston Big Game, and the tournament was running on fumes.

Steve James had taken second prize in 1996 when he’d hauled in a 454-pound blue shark. Sensing that the competition needed a more enterprising mind behind it, he approached the club’s owner about taking it over. In 1998, James organized and ran his first Monster Shark Tournament. The event grew quickly. A little press coverage didn’t hurt, either, and in 2001, when a 1,221-pound mako was caught off Chatham, the Boston Big Game brand made national headlines. ESPN signed on to broadcast the tournament, and by 2005, with the economy still roaring, James’s event was regularly attracting more than 200 boats a year and pumping up the local economy to boot, by funneling dollars into the Wesley Hotel, bars like The Lampost, and eateries like Nancy’s, where the jaws from that record-setting mako now hang.

But here on this shark-charged island, where Jaws-themed souvenirs always sell, James–who is unafraid to make statements like “Steve James defined big game fishing in New England”–is both revered and reviled. “I won’t even go downtown when it’s going on,” says one longtime shop owner. “It’s not a Vineyard event. I don’t like my home being known for this. I hope it stops altogether.”

She’s not alone. In 2007, voting on a nonbinding ballot question that asked whether the community should continue to allow public property to be used for events like the shark tournament, Oak Bluffs Town Meeting attendees almost ended it right there. A year later, the board of selectmen voted 3 to 2 to deny one-day liquor licenses to any shark tournament, putting an end to James’s pre-event banquet at a local park. Then in 2008 the Humane Society of the United States flew in Wendy Benchley, widow of Jaws author Peter Benchley, to speak out against the tournament and the detriment to the world’s shark populations that it posed. But James has been defiant. If anything, the controversy and the attacks have fueled him. In the press, he blasted Benchley as a contradiction.

“She’s inherited the fortune of the person most responsible for tainting the public perception of what sharks are about,” he said. “You couldn’t find anybody more ill-prepared to discuss this topic.” And in the wake of the liquor-license ban, he told reporters he had no plans to shut things down. “I will continue to hold this event until I’m 70 years old,” he said. “I might start holding three of these tournaments each summer. Who’s going to stop me?”

The weather, for one thing. On this weekend, James’s tournament has been cut short by a nasty storm that has pretty much wiped out the first day of fishing. Two nights ago winds and swells blasted boats, blowing out the windows on one 45-footer. The few that did try to fish the next morning fared even worse. One 29-footer went under about five miles south of the island–which only amplifies the crowd’s excitement and the stakes for today’s weigh-in, an all-or-nothing affair that can be won by a single catch. And James, who patrols the weigh-station area with a microphone, is both lobbyist and entertainer, pushing the importance of tournaments like his, where biologists stand ready to dissect the hauled catches for future research, all while the Jaws theme music blares from a pair of large speakers.

Around 3 p.m., the first boat steams in to the crowd’s cheers as it backs up to a pair of posts where its catch, a 299-pound thresher, is winched high in the air. The bloody stump of a fake hand hangs from the side of the boat. “I hope it’s got a fat belly,” yells one unimpressed spectator. As the fish is laid out and later chopped up into beefy steaks, James peppers the onlookers with more questions. “Who knows what kind of fish this is?” he asks. “Thresher!” they respond enthusiastically.

And on it goes. A 259-pound mako and a 320-pound thresher follow. The winner is a 361-pound porbeagle, a thick-bodied deepwater fish of the same family as the mako and great white. The contented (and richer by $25,000) captain of the boat, the Karen Jean II out of Marshfield, Massachusetts, sips from a can of Budweiser as James announces its weight and length (“Seven feet!”).

When it’s over and the evening takes shape, music blasts from several docked boats as crews drink and dance. On land, the spectacle of the day’s catch is on full display, as the head of one shark sits atop a cooler for passers-by to admire. Two high-school girls are particularly engrossed. “Oh, my gosh,” says one, a pretty blonde in pink pants and a multicolored top. “I gotta take a picture of this!” She leans in close with her camera phone, putting herself just a few inches from the severed head. She snaps and squeals in delight at her find. In a matter of seconds it’s winged out into the ether, to her sister, who’s horrified by sharks. “But she really wanted to be here!”

On an island that’s still a year-round home to a number of longtime fishing families whose roots here reach back generations, when it comes to sharks there’s one fisherman in particular whose name pops up again and again: Stanley Larsen. In the late 1950s his father and uncles were among the first longliners in Atlantic waters, ushering in a new era in a tuna and swordfishing industry still dominated by harpooners. Larsen grew up on the Vineyard and began fishing as a boy, going out with his dad’s crew on trips that took them 150 miles out, lasting several weeks at a time, “till the boat was filled up.”

Today Larsens live all over the Vineyard–many, including Stanley, in Menemsha, an active fishing village on the island’s southwest side, marked by fabulous water views and steep home prices, even by Vineyard standards. It’s on Menemsha that Steven Spielberg and his crew descended for part of the filming of Jaws in 1974, building Quint’s shack down at the marina and recruiting local talent as extras and support personnel. Not far from the mayhem of Spielberg’s project–the unanticipated five months of filming, the technical difficulties, the constant budgeting issues that pushed islanders to refer to the movie as Flaws–Stanley Larsen owns and operates the Menemsha Fish Market on Dutcher Dock.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Friday, June 11th, 2010

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One Response to Great White Sharks in New England | Feeding Frenzy

  1. Stephen van Vuuren July 7, 2010 at 12:18 am #

    This is an appalling slanted, biased, naive and irresponsible article. Sharks pose zero threat to humans – the “attacks” cited in your article are accidental prey “mistakes”. Sharks almost never attack or eat people on purpose. If so, there would be tens of thousands of people or more killed yearly. Instead, the average number killed is 4 to 5. Falling coconuts, holes on the beach, vending machine kill more people. Domesticated dogs, bees all kill many times more.

    And humans? We are killing 100 million sharks a year for a tasteless soup decoration.

    Many sharks, including Great Whites, are highly intelligent (much more than a dog or cat), social, very wary of people and nothing at all like the animal you describe in frothy, over-hyped article.

    Great Whites are also on the verge of extinction and your failure to lead with this info does a great disservice to anyone reading it.

    Your article fails to mention how the gruesome tournament erroneously characterizes sharks as “monsters”. The only “monsters” are earth are bipedal and prone to watching TV. The only feeding frenzy is embarrassing articles like this.

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