It’s that time of year again; when groups of “macho” men go out and try and prove something by catching and killing sharks off Martha’s Vineyard, a community on the southern part of Cape Cop, Massachusetts. You may have even seen some of the tournament in years past, broadcast as the “Monster Shark Tournament” on ESPN, and make no mistake, this is not a catch-and-release tournament or one that seems to have conservation in mind. Sharks are caught and brought in to be measured in front of crowds at the docks, points being awarded for the size and rarity of the bloodied animals. The big prize that made the news today? A 16 and 1/2 foot long, 536 pound thresher shark (I’m assuming it was a Common Thresher, Alopias vulpinus, from the photo, as there are three species of threshers) caught by Allen Mullaney. While thresher sharks are considered vulnerable by the IUCN and many conservationists and those concerned with animal rights have protested the shark tournament, the “sportsmen” (and I use the term despite their conduct) are not to be dissauded. Says Mullaney;
‘‘You have to love the sport of fishing to understand,’’ he said. ‘‘It was just me against him.’’
The false man-eater aspect of the tournament was played up by the coverage on ESPN when I saw it the summer before last, just as it is used to sell Shark Week on the Discovery Channel (which gets more atrocious every year). There is no care for conservation from those who fish for these sharks; it’s all about personal glory and the debunked myth of sharks as ruthless killers and sea monsters. I’ve fished for shark myself, catching a 3-foot dusky shark off Ocean City, Maryland which was measured, tagged, and released. Even this method can be quite stressful to the animal, but it is at least trying to benefit science while allowing fishermen to continue their definition of “sport.” The Oaks Bluff competition, however, offers no such consolation. Indeed, despite protests voiced about the lack of ethics involved and the behavior of some of the participants, the town went along with the tournament anyway.
I would hope that this would be the last year the tournament took place, but sharks still suffer from a PR problem despite the policy changes that have been made, and terrible TV programming doesn’t help. In 2000 I assisted the Discovery Channel with getting information for Shark Week: Uncaged (particularly the “Fin Time” segments that ran during commercial breaks), but I can hardly remember a year when the focus was on conservation and science rather than gory spectacles promising “Death Tape Footage.” Two years ago the Discovery Channel had a tie-in with the horror film Open Water, but yet they refuse to endorse the acclaimed conservation-oriented shark documentary Sharkwater. I guess they’d prefer to tell tales of death like Grizzly Man because animal violence sells. Even on its sister channel, Animal Planet, animal-on-human violence is inescapable. I forget the idiot’s name, but there a series that stemmed from a special featuring an ex-circus trainer trying to get close to lions on foot. He now has his own series which starts with a self-serving introduction about how he overcame his fear of lions after an abused animal decided not to take it anymore and took it out on the whip-wielding trainer. The show features lots of shaky-camera/fake-blood reenactments with the host commiserating with fellow attack victims afterwards, but the whole thing just makes me sick.
If that is the best “science” television can offer I’m glad I don’t get cable.