'Jaws' country divided over shark tourney

People wear shark hats during JawsFest: The Tribute,

People wear shark hats during JawsFest: The Tribute, a festival celebrating the film Jaws, on the island of Martha's Vineyard. (Aug. 11, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

BOSTON - On Martha's Vineyard, the Massachusetts island where the aquatic villain in the 1975 film "Jaws" menaced swimmers, some residents now say sharks need protection from humans.

Voters in the town of Oak Bluffs passed a measure calling for the annual Monster Shark Tournament that ended yesterday to be the last contest where the animals can be killed and strung up by their tails, a tradition that draws thousands to the summer resort island.

Though nonbinding, the measure is pitting residents against merchants and big-game fishermen who travel from as far as Texas to chase some of the ocean's largest predators.

"It has turned into a spectacle and a frat-party scene," said Gail Barmakian, one of five selectmen representing Oak Bluffs, which sits on a harbor lined with gingerbread-style homes and is scented by clams frying at nearby restaurants. The town becomes unrecognizable during the four-day tournament, she said, with drunks sleeping on sidewalks and broken beer bottles piled under benches.

 

'The culture has changed'

In a nation so fascinated by sharks that more than 1 million viewers tuned into the Syfy channel this month for "Sharknado" -- a disaster movie that combines the menace of killer fish with cyclonic weather -- the island's shift in attitude represents a victory, even if symbolic, said Wendy Benchley, the widow of "Jaws" author Peter Benchley.

"We love our monsters," said Benchley, president of the board of the New York City-based Shark Savers conservation group. "But the culture has changed. To have a kill tournament at this time in the life of the ocean just sends the message to the public and the youth that it is OK to kill our apex predators [creatures that are not themselves preyed upon in the wild] that are in trouble around the world."

Peter Benchley set the novel in the fictitious summer resort town of Amity on Long Island. Director Steven Spielberg moved the location to New England and shot most of the film on Martha's Vineyard.

 

16 brought in last year

Steve James, owner of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, which runs the tournament, said the critics are misguided. The sharks caught aren't endangered and only 16 were taken last year, he said.

"They try to make it seem like there is a dead shark hanging on every pylon in Oak Bluffs," James said in a telephone interview.

Should the town selectmen enforce the catch-and-release measure next year, he threatened to tell contestants to drop their captured sharks near the shoreline.

"How exciting would it be to have hundreds of sharks in Oak Bluffs Harbor?" he said with a laugh.

Protests began after a news photo from the 2005 tournament brought protests from animal-rights activists such as the Humane Society. The picture showed a 1,191-pound tiger shark that was brought to the dock minutes after the deadline had expired.

Nigel Barker, a former judge on the reality show "America's Next Top Model," has joined the fray. In 2008, he watched the tournament and chronicled the daily weigh-in on his blog.

"The sharks are unceremoniously hanged, drawn and quartered in a public display of butchery that mirrors medieval public executions," he wrote.

For businesses in Oak Bluffs, the tournament is a boon. They capitalize by selling shot glasses with sharks emblazoned on the side, baseball caps with brims that look bitten, and shark-themed bottle openers.

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