Great White Sharks in New England | Feeding Frenzy
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.
On a warm mid-November day I visit Larsen at his store. A steel-gray sky hangs overhead, high winds whip around the island, and save for one fisherman who’s shelling scallops, the marina is still. Larsen, a fast talker with a medium build and busy eyes, doesn’t fish anymore. Stiffer regulations and steeper expenses pushed him out of the business. But for a time in the 1980s he was one of the few guys to hunt sharks exclusively. He’d come to it by default: The large swordfish stocks his father and uncles had known had been almost wiped out. He’d made up for it with shark fins, a controversial delicacy in demand in Asia for shark-fin soup. The practice of finning–it essentially entails cutting off just a small section of the shark and dumping the rest of the fish–was made illegal in U.S. waters in 2000, but for a period Larsen was fetching $20 a pound.
It’s dangerous work. When a bull shark latched onto his cousin’s leg, Larsen had to pry open the fish’s mouth with crowbars. Another time, just seconds after his crew had hauled in a 150-pound mako, the fish started thrashing on the deck, pushing the crew toward the bow before flopping its way down the staircase toward the engine room. “I grabbed it by the tail and just started holding it,” Larsen recalls. “Another guy grabbed a rope and wrapped it around the tail, and we just pulled it back up. It was pure adrenaline that got that shark back on the boat.”
But the story he tells most often is the one he’s advertised the most. Larsen’s main business is fish, but he’s carved out some shelf space for items like T-shirts that say Amity (the island’s name in Jaws) and colorful wooden signs in the shape of a great white. But the stopper is a large faded print of Larsen and his crew with a great white, taken in 1983–and, of course, there are the jaws from that fish.
Larsen was combing the waters for swordfish on his big 52-foot shrimper southeast of Georges Bank. He’d harpooned his first fish when the white showed up, going underwater to take a bite of the catch before coming back up. So it went for three days; nearly the entire catch was ruined. Finally, Larsen went for the shark himself. He circled the area where he’d anchored. Around and around he went for two hours, hoping the white would pop up again. When it did, Larsen went after it.
“I harpooned him, but as soon as I did, he swung right around and swam toward the boat, coming toward it like he was going to attack it,” Larsen says. By his own estimate, the shark ran about 20 feet in length and weighed some 3,000 pounds. “Just before he got to the boat, he went straight down.” The shark was mortally wounded; the fight was over. Larsen’s crew eventually got the great white onto the boat’s deck, where they cut out the jaws and discarded the body.