Monday, August 01, 2005

Shark's contest deals face the Humane Society

A national animal rights group is moving to end a popular Martha's Vineyard shark-fishing tournament and keep ESPN from airing footage of this year's event.

The 1,191-pound tiger shark caught in this month's tournament drew the attention of The Humane Society. (Photo courtesy of CAPE COD CHARTERS)

Just days after the last sharks were weighed at this year's annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament, The Humane Society of the United States has launched a campaign to stop the ''contest of killing sharks,'' according to a statement.

The Humane Society sent a letter to ABC Sports and ESPN, which covered the tournament extensively, asking them to withdraw plans to air the event this fall. ESPN also broadcast the shark-fishing tournament last year.

John Grandy, a senior vice president for the Humane Society, said the group is calling on its 9 million members to pressure the national cable sports network to pull the shark shows.

''Killing of sharks or any animal is an affront to a civilized society,'' Grandy said. ''In this case it contributes to further declines in shark populations while adding to the stigma that surrounds these magnificent predators.''

One of several such events in East Coast waters, the Monster Shark Tournament has taken place for 19 years and is popular with area fishermen.

About 240 boats participated this year, landing 46 sharks from July 14 to 16, according to Greg Skomal an aquatic biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

''Shocked and aghast''

But it was one shark in particular that drew fire from The Humane Society: a 1,191-pound tiger shark that was brought in moments after the tournament had ended.

Photographs of the sizable shark were circulated around the world and broadcast on several television stations.

''I was shocked and aghast when I saw it on the 'Today' show,''' Grandy said. ''It is a horrific waste of animal life.''

Although no legal action has been filed, The Humane Society has been involved in dozens of lawsuits on behalf of animals as varied as elephants, manatees and snow geese.

Locally, The Humane Society waged a battle against coyote hunting on Monomoy Island in the mid-1990s.

It is uncertain how far The Humane Society will take this latest campaign, but the group's displeasure with the shark tournament was clear.

In a letter to George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society, asks the network to pull the upcoming show about the tournament.

''Even before the debut of the book and movie 'Jaws,' sharks captured the public's imagination,'' Pacelle said. ''In the last several decades, the public's fascination has spurred research that has allowed us better understanding of their life history and growing conservation concerns.''

The letter goes on to cite studies by the United Nations that found that more than 100 million sharks are killed each year and that global shark populations have declined by 90 percent in the past 50 years.

''These are shocking statistics and they should incite us all to protect these magnificent and ancient creatures, not to seek to kill more of them,'' Pacelle said. ''Contests like the tournament glorify the gruesome deaths of some of the ocean's most fascinating and least understood creatures.''

ESPN executives would not comment on the complaint.

Science's dependency

Skomal, the state's renowned shark expert who gained notoriety last year when a great white shark was trapped in a local inlet, said scientists depend on events like the shark tournament to gain subjects for their studies.

''The problem we have as scientists is that there is no way you can learn life history by swimming around with live sharks,'' Skomal said. ''You have to kill them to do the samples that produce the best scientific data. We do the same for other fisheries as well. If the shark tournament goes away, we lose an avenue into this type of science.''

Skomal also questioned the numbers being used by The Humane Society to back up their complaints.

Skomal said the population of blue sharks, one of the sharks allowed in the tournament, has dropped just 15 percent from their virgin biomass population. Virgin biomass is the estimated historical population of a fishery.

''This is clearly different than the numbers being used by The Humane Society,'' Skomal said. ''The public has to go beyond the press releases and dig into the facts and data that exist to get a broad perspective on this.''

A major event

For two decades, the Boston Big Game Fishing Club has held the Monster Shark Tournament out of Oak Bluffs Harbor, and the event has grown into one of the biggest summer events on Martha's Vineyard.

Fishermen and charter boat captains from all over the northeast pay $1,000 per vessel to participate. The first prize, a new boat, was valued at $130,000.

Oak Bluffs selectmen are working with tournament organizers to rein in the participants and share more of the money the event raises with the community that hosts the tournament.

The campaign to stop the event echoes some concerns voiced by local animal rights activists who have started raising the issue on the editorial pages of local papers.

Steve James, president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, has heard the latest complaints, but is adamant about the tournament's value to science, the local economy and to fishermen who participate in the event.

''If somehow they have acquired more knowledge and insight than the National Marine Fisheries Service with respect to fisheries management here in the northwestern Atlantic, I encourage them to share it,'' he said. ''What does The Humane Society know about marine fisheries? This is what recreational fishermen do, we kill fish.''

The fishing club has used money raised by the tournament to purchase a $4,000 pop-up satellite archival tag for Skomal for researching thresher sharks' migration patterns and habitat, depth and feeding preferences.

James also points to the last tournament, where caught sharks assisted scientists in the study of the shark's inner ear.

''As fishermen, we are the ones interested in maintaining the sharks and the conservation of the fishery,'' James said.


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