MONTAUK, LONG ISLAND // The smell of dead fish meat mixed with diesel fuel was almost overpowering but did not bother the people crowding around as a shark hung from its tail was weighed on the dockside. Half of the shark's intestines were falling out of its mouth as proud fishermen and their children were photographed next to it. The theme music from the Steven Spielberg movie Jaws played on a loudspeaker.
Welcome to the 38th annual Montauk Marine Basin Shark Tournament, a two-day event held on the last weekend of June in which about 80 boats compete for a top prize of US$280,000 (Dh1.03 million). The little village of Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island has become synonymous with shark-fishing, but also a growing controversy over the sport's ethics. The battle pitches animal rights groups seeking to protect increasingly endangered sharks against fishermen and locals who say they depend on the sport to make a living.
Separating science from emotion is not easy, but both sides agree that the movie Jaws, based on the Peter Benchley novel, sparked an explosion in shark fishing along the US northeast coast in the 1970s. Benchley's novel was set in a town modelled on Montauk and the character Captain Quint, a grizzly fisherman who helps to catch the novel's marauding shark, is widely believed to be inspired by Frank Mundus, who is now 82 and spends his summers on Long Island and winters in Hawaii.
Mr Mundus still sounds bitter about the lack of any acknowledgement from Benchley, who denied the connection and died in 2006. "All I wanted was a word of thanks from Benchley, some recognition for everything he used in the book and movie based on myself," he said. He also said he warned everyone about the dangers of overfishing decades ago. He does not think much of today's competitions, but he also does not believe in banning the sport.
"I hate to see a sport run for money. It gives it a hard nose. You're going to push the other guys around and not be a sport about it," he said. "I would say that sharks are endangered and shark fishing should be regulated. Everyone should use circle hooks that don't kill the animals if you release them." Prize money in some tournaments can reach $1m and side-betting among the hundreds of anglers who take part can add thousands of dollars in additional inducement. It is increasingly a sport for the rich, given recent increases in fuel prices on top of the costs involved in maintaining or chartering a boat.
Chris Fallow is a financial headhunter who travelled to Montauk from South Carolina, where he lives. He said it cost $1,500 just to fuel the boat for the day, and added they caught a 127kg mako. "We probably caught about 10 blue sharks and tagged some of them. We had a blast. It's fun being out on the open ocean with your buddies, and it's beautiful out there." The Montauk Marine Basin's tournament is a "shark tag" competition. Sharks below a minimum weight requirement, which varies according to the species, are supposed to be tagged and released back into the water for scientific monitoring. Only one shark a day per boat can be caught and entered into the tournament.
In reality, fishermen catch and kill smaller sharks. Although these smaller sharks do not qualify for the tournaments, species such as mako are prized for their meat and the "kill stories" they generate. On the first day of the tournament, for example, one boat named Tough Guy hauled in a 44kg mako, well below the 68kg minimum. "I weigh more than that," muttered one of the scientists, who was at the dock to encourage greater tagging by fishermen as well as to sift through shark meat as part of research.
The tournament's winning shark, a thresher, weighed 211kg, but many of the sharks caught were less than 100kg. They were all a far cry from the two-tonne great white harpooned by Mr Mundus in 1964 that helped him to market his brand of "monster fishing" until the great beasts disappeared. The popularity of shark fin soup in Asia and large-scale commercial fishing are mostly to blame for the dearth of big sharks in the last few decades, but shark fishing for sport has also had its effects, say animal rights campaigners.
"We're thinking of raising the minimum weights and even banning certain species next year," said Carl Darenberg, 58, who owns the Montauk Marine Basin, which was established by his parents. "These tournaments are part of the local culture and offshore fishing is the staple of all the charter boats. Shark-fishing generates a lot of money in the area and helps tourism and the economy," said Mr Darenberg, who is also a member of the local chamber of commerce.
Mr Darenberg also pointed out the presence of researchers at the tournament from the National Marine Fisheries Service - part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We've been monitoring the tournament for most of the almost 40 years that it's been going on," said Nancy Kohler of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which manages marine resources and conservation. "Tagging the sharks gives us an idea of what's out there and about their migration routes."
Also at the tournament was Joanna Borucinska, a veterinary pathologist, who tracks pollution and cancers in sharks for the University of Hartford. "It's not easy to access sharks, so tournaments are a golden opportunity. But if they were banned, I would find other ways, perhaps with commercial fishermen," she said. "Spielberg and Jaws did a lot of harm to the reputation of sharks and it will take years to reverse that. Sharks are intelligent and sensitive, like whales and other preserved species, but there has to be a political decision and pressure from the public before anything is done."
William Crain formed the East Hampton Group for Wildlife in order to exert such pressure. The psychologist, who teaches at the City College of New York, said shark tournaments are simply a "celebration of death". "Most of the sharks they kill are just babies or juveniles and can't even reproduce, but it still makes the fishermen feel macho," he said. "When they're hung up for weighing, kids sometimes pat them, but to me it's just hardening the kids' hearts."
He believes campaigning against tournaments will help to educate the public about the cruelty involved, although he acknowledges that commercial fishing plays a bigger role in endangering the animal. A plethora of shark research has been conducted in recent years and Mr Crain cites some of the figures: humans kill between 40m and 70m sharks annually, while the animals kill an average of only 10 humans each year; from 1986 to 2000, most shark populations in the northwestern Atlantic dropped by more than 50 per cent. Most of the sharks brought to dock in Montauk weighed only between 65kg and 75kg.
He believes a ban on tournaments would do little to dent the popularity of Long Island among tourists, who often come for the beaches and fashionable restaurants in towns such as East Hampton. "The scientists sit at these tournaments and just take notes while the species goes extinct," said Mr Crain. Ms Borucinska will continue her research as long as the tournaments continue, but she does not eat shark meat. Competitions often donate shark meat to local charities for distribution among the poor.
"Sharks are top predators, on top of the food chain, so they gather an accumulation of pollutants from the bottom up," she said. "We compare the tissue of younger and older sharks because they are good bio-indicators and we find a lot of pollutants and toxins. I wouldn't eat them." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org