The Boston Big Game Fishing Club’s annual Monster Shark Tournament, while a bloodthirsty celebration of shark decimation, doesn’t live up to the potential for gruesome spectacle and wild debauchery it once did.
It takes place down a side alley off one of swanky Newport, Rhode Island’s main strips. Behind the tourist traps, surf shops, clam shacks, and pizza-by-the-slice joints, nestled among multi-masted sailboats that would make Captain Jack Sparrow crow with envy and yachts so big that when one motors out of the harbor it feels as though Rhode Island itself is the one moving, the grandiosely named event first appears to be little more than a few tents set up in a bleached-shell-littered parking lot. A small group of people in matching purple T-shirts mill about, and a local vendor is selling hot dogs and other street food fare.
It’s 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and the official weigh-in time started about an hour ago, stretching until 7 p.m.
Twenty-some odd boats signed up for the contest, each shelling out around $1,500 for the chance to wrest a toothy beast from the sea and potentially win cash and prizes.
Yet only one has thus far sent word they have a fish worth bringing ashore, and they’re a couple hours out to sea. A few onlookers wander around and, at the weigh station—consisting of two large cutting boards and a table in a cordoned-off area below an optimistically placed industrial crane—staff mingle with representatives from the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries unit on hand to dissect the animals and record scientific data. It’s the sort of beautiful, bright, blue-skied hot summer day that is the bread and butter of coastal towns like Newport. But as we wait for news, the vibe is more pensive than festive.
This wasn’t always the case.
For the first 26 of its 28-tournament run, the annual Monster Shark Tournament took over the harbor front in downtown Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. Located on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and sandwiched between family-friendly Vineyard Haven and the old-money preppie stronghold of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs in the summer feels like a keg party. The harbor is ringed with quaintly named dive bars, providing ample opportunity and incentive to make it one, anyway.
During the shark tournament, those with boats lashed them together to create mini islands of fun-in-the-sun debauchery, awaiting the imminent return of sometimes hundreds of intrepid fishermen.
In the center of it all was tournament founder Steve James, a larger-than-life showman who’s nonstop banter over the PA system ranged from amusing factoids to verbal harassment for the ever-present Humane Society protesters.
Sharks that met the minimum weight—these vary by species—would arrive with as much fanfare as a game-winning touchdown, hoisted from massive sport boats and weighed, then dissected by NOAA volunteers. The harbor would run red with blood as children ran feral with shark fins and other body parts, carrying on almost as loudly as their intoxicated parents.
Over the years the tournament became a hotly contested event on the island, even drawing the ire of Jaws author Peter Benchley’s wife. But it was also one that, at least according to James, brought in a lot of money for the seasonal village.
Love him or hate him, he was king, the tournament, and—if only for that weekend in July—the town of Oak Bluffs was his kingdom. Whenever pesky Vineyard residents got too outraged, he would bluster and yell back, threatening many times to take his sharkapalooza elsewhere, though he never followed through.
Then, two years ago, James died in a hunting accident.
His family, specifically his mother, Doreen, continued his legacy, though they did, in fact, move the event to its current home in Newport. In doing so, they lost more than the perfectly crafted venue, they also lost two-thirds of their entrants. Competing shark tournaments have popped up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and on Block Island, off the Rhode Island coast, on the same weekend and allegedly put on by former James cohorts.
James’s is a legacy that has become less a kingdom and more a back alley bait shack.
A small set of bleachers are set up, but the slowly swelling crowd of onlookers—egged on by an MC assuring them a potential world record setting behemoth is only moments away, firmly in the possession of the very same boat that won last year—prefer to line up at the edge of the weigh station. Every few moments someone leans over and looks down the length of the dock, past the buildings at its end, scanning hopefully for some excitement.
A rumor persists that U2’s Bono is eating a lobster roll across the way, but it turns out to be just an aging European tourist with an earring and unseasonal leather jacket.
Standing in the center of the giant cutting board is NOAA biologist Lisa Natanson, who will direct the small squad of volunteers in their necropsies. With her pink-and-white floral pattern knee-high rubber boots, she is a familiar site and multi-year veteran of the event. She is politically noncommittal when asked about her opinion on shark hunting.
“In terms of the event, it’s gonna happen,” she says, sounding as though she’s choosing her words carefully, and then shrugging. “And if it happens, from my perspective, it’s an opportunistic way to get samples.”
Natanson and her team will be measuring and weighing each shark, taking samples, and collecting data for life history studies. It’s a pastime that takes up much of her summer.
“There are shark tournaments every weekend,” she explains. “I hop tournament to tournament.”
She’s also not afraid to admit that the events (once a shark is brought in, anyway) are compelling beyond her own work.
“If I wasn't sampling and it was happening, I’d come watch,” she admits.
As the first and only boat to weigh in Friday, the Magellan out of Harwich, Massachusetts, at last sidles up to the dock, people do sidle up boatside to watch.
The crane slowly lowers and draws the bleeding, unmistakable shark silhouette out of the boat by the tail, hoisting it high overhead and depositing it ashore on the white platform. Excitement starts to gain momentum. The crowd grows steadily as word spreads back to the street, drawing the curious to come face to face with a beast that horror movies are made of.
Mouth agape as it’s raised once again skyward, this time to weigh, row after row of serrated teeth are visible, outlined by a steady trickle of draining blood as it hangs nose downward.
At 432 pounds, this porbeagle shark is more than 70 shy of capturing a world record, but it’s still an impressive fish. It’s also a species listed as vulnerable, meaning it has a high likelihood of becoming endangered. This tournament only allows catching porbeagles, mako, and thresher sharks—the more notorious, and deadly, Great White is protected.
Once the weight is officially established, it’s lowered and tournament volunteers and sponsors take a few moments to pose for selfies before Natanson and her crew set to work.
Spectators are several rows deep now, and even lining up across the slip. A mix of pastel-clad preppie, novelty tee-wearing tourists and salty marina dwellers mingle, many of them hoisting up children to get a good view.
Oohs and ahhs abound, and no one flinches as the fish is split down the middle, its massive internal organs scooped out to be weighed and sampled. At least not until the smell hits—a combination of suspect seafood and salty stomach bile lingers in the hot and humid air.
A steady river of blood and foamy internal fluids mix with hose water as volunteers spray off slabs of shark steak to be donated to a local food bank, weaving a crimson river towards a drain.
The biologist’s team are brutally efficient at their jobs, and within half an hour it’s done, the crowd and carcass gone, just blood and empty plastic water bottles in their wake. One of the tournament organizers looks at his watch, noting the lack of any other victorious vessels.
The following day only three more sharks large enough to be weighed as potential competitors are brought in. Though the size of the crowd grows a bit, it’s nowhere near the size or energy of the partying throngs of Oak Bluffs.
Sharks have dominated headlines this year, from the string of attacks on humans in the Carolinas to the growing Great White population in Rhode Island neighbor Cape Cod. The day after the tournament, one of the top news stories involved a pro surfer who literally came to physical blows when a shark attacked him in a contest lineup.
As humans, our own position at the top of the global food chain causes an obsessive curiosity in those few animals that can buck our domination and make a meal of us. It’s the same fascination that prompted a crowd on Cape Cod to save a beached Great White a week ago.
Even so, it’s hard to stomach watching such a creature—the 432-pound porbeagle, which won the weekend, was estimated to be only a third of the way through its average 60-year lifespan and of which there are only three records involving human attack—laid to pieces on a sweaty dock between multimillion-dollar boats in the name of sport.
While the number of sharks killed in tournaments is no doubt relatively low, when coupled with the staggering 100 million creatures harvested annually for their fin alone, it becomes a whole lot harder to defend.