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A look at the history, evolution and future of this monster of a shark tournament as it enters 30 years of competition.
By DJ Stetson with Bill Brown
Tags: offshore

While a sportfishing endeavor first and foremost, the MST is widely recognized and respected by many marine biologists for the tournament’s commitment to conservation and science. Teams of scientists congregate to the contest every summer to take advantage of the unique opportunity to examine the sharks caught during the two days of fishing. Scientists acknowledge the MST as an exemplary event among its peers not only for the wealth of data gathered, but also for the very high minimum weigh-in standards and the incredible release rate of sharks throughout the history of the event. The MST has maintained an over 90% release rate since 1994. In 1999, and again in 2009, the tournament achieved a remarkable release rate of 98.2%. The highest ratio recorded, however, was at the 2008 event when anglers registered a 98.4% rating. In addition to taking length and weight measurements, scientists note the species and sex of the shark before performing a necropsy to collect tissue samples and to examine the shark’s stomach contents. The sharks are then processed by MST staff before being returned to their respective captains and crews.

The NMFS requires any shark of legal species to have a fork length of at least 54 inches to be retained, but MST standards are much higher. To exceed the MST weight qualifications, most sharks need to be over six feet long. Once open to several more species during the earlier years, the event currently only allows mako, thresher and porbeagle sharks in the contest. Renowned shark scientists such as Lisa Natanson of NOAA and University of Hartford biology professor Joanna Borucinska have been involved with the event since the 1990’s, while iconic ichthyologist, Dr. Greg Skomal has been involved with the MST since it’s inception in ’87.

Dr. Skomal has maintained detailed records of the data collected at the MST since it started including documenting the release of over 20,000 sharks. MST fishermen have also tagged close to 2,000 additional sharks including the first white shark tagged in the event back in 2010. Skomal earned a masters degree from the University of Rhode Island, received his PhD from Boston University and currently works with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries. Greg’s research efforts have been featured on several programs during Discovery Channel’s wildly popular Shark Week, and he is an avid supporter of the MST. “I’m proud to come to this tournament. We collect data on the sharks weighed-in. For scientists, it’s invaluable.” said Skomal.

He continued, “The uniqueness of the accurate tally of sharks that are landed, as well as those that are released, provides valuable data on catch rates, species viability and relative abundance which relates into information that can be used for assessing shark populations. No other tournament in the world garners this much information.”

Even as the annual fleet receded back to more manageable numbers in Oak Bluffs, elements within town hall were still unsatisfied with the event. For years selectmen like Gail Barmakian and others had continued to try to tighten the drag on the competition in an attempt to reel in the MST once and for all, but to no avail. Fish tales are notoriously prone to embellishment, but the same is true of politicians and many MST supporters suggested that the mischief and mayhem of tournament week was often exaggerated by elected officials and overhyped by certain media outlets. The cottage community had become a hallowed haven of the Atlantic’s angling elite over the last 25 years, but the tide on the island was turning.

MST helmsman Steve James astutely noticed the ominous horizon approaching the island and began to plan accordingly. James had always desired to keep the MST in Oak Bluffs, but following the 2012 contest he quietly considered a change of venues for the event. After carefully contemplating the logistics including operating costs and other factors, Steve eventually decided to relocate the tournament in the fall of 2012, but not before presenting one final show for Oak Bluffs. He would reveal his intentions for the future of the event with an encrypted message of the back of the 2013 MST t-shirt. A collection of nautical flags spelled out the new venue: “Newport.”

Nevertheless, the perception of the town populace swung slightly toward the MST's opposition by the spring of 2013. After years of failed attempts to jettison the event by town officials, a group of Oak Bluffs residents proposed new local legislation requiring all future shark tournaments to be entirely catch-and-release events. In April of 2013, a small percentage of town voters turned out at the annual town meeting and cast their ballots against the MST (64-50.) A similar situation resulted a few days later at the town election when residents selected to shun the stereotypical stigma of shark fishing by another slim margin (225-186.) The 2013 MST would be allowed to proceed as scheduled as the non-binding resolutions would go into effect following the contest that year. However, officials saw the opportunity to flex their muscle against the MST and implemented additional sanctions on tournament participants charging an additional $225 dollars in mooring fees to all MST vessels.

Yet despite all the bureaucracy, the angling atmosphere of the contest was largely unaffected. Tournament fishermen had always enjoyed their time in Oak Bluffs, but many involved understood it was time to search for more stable seas. As much as anglers were enamored with the amenities and ambiance of Oak Bluffs, the allure of Newport's opulence made the venue transition a very tempting proposal for fishermen. With the conclusion of the 2013 event, the MST and its faithful fleet would bid a fond farewell to the vintage venue, thankful for many years of joyful memories.

Sadly, Steve James would never get the opportunity to witness his armada of anglers assemble in Newport. On January 7, 2014, Steve James was hunting sea ducks with two of his friends, Robert Becher of Cromwell, Connecticut and Gregg Angell of Westport, Massachusetts. The three friends were hunting from a small, 16-foot aluminum boat on the Westport River when tragedy struck. It was a bitterly-cold day, the weather turned suddenly and wind driven waves quickly swamped the small craft causing it to capsize in the frigid waters. When rescuers arrived they recovered the bodies of Steve James and Mr. Becher who had both already succumbed from the exposure to the icy river. The Coast Guard was also able to locate Mr. Angell and transported him to Rhode Island Hospital where he was able to recover.

The abrupt and untimely death of Steve stunned his family, friends and fellow fishermen from across New England. For 16 years, the shrewd and saliferous Steve James had brought strong leadership and a relentless passion to the MST. His dedication, intensity and vast knowledge provided an added element of credibility which the event so desperately needed. A memorial service was held for Steve where hundreds of fishermen turned out to pay their final respects and to celebrate his life.

Still reeling from the loss, Steve’s family, close friends and former MST staff members gathered to decide the future of the tournament. To immortalize Steve's legacy, everyone agreed that the MST must carry on; however there were conflicting opinions on exactly how the event should continue. Emotions were still running high and discussions shortly dissolved as there was now clear dissension among the MST crew over the best direction to proceed with the event. Soon MST had splintered into two factions as the James family would run the 2014 MST in Newport, while Steve's friends and former staff would launch their own event held in New Bedford, called the North Atlantic Shark Tournament (NAST.)

The MST was entering uncharted waters. Without the tactful guidance of Steve James, the event now had to contend with the challenges of the new venue and compete with rivals like NAST. During these most tumultuous of times, the noble efforts of Teresa and Kevin Dominie, along with Jay Houser, helped Steve's mother, Doreen, sustain the tournament. However, despite the best efforts of those involved, the MST was not establishing the same traction in Newport that it had known on the Vineyard. While enjoying the stature of a marquee attraction in Oak Bluffs, much of that status was lost in the relocation. After flourishing for much of the 27 years on the island, it appeared that the event was already floundering in the elitist environment of Newport.

2015 was a rather lackluster year by MST standards, and it was obvious that some changes needed to be considered for the future of the contest. The down-cycle of the last two years were concerning, and as attendance declined tournament officials searched for solutions. It was at that time when Rich Stetson, a veteran of the former MST staff and one of the innovators of the NAST, called Doreen James to extend the proverbial olive branch in effort to end the feud and to discuss the possibility of a merger of the two events. Soon afterward a conference was arranged between the leaders of both the MST and NAST, only this time cooler heads prevailed and the two sides successfully negotiated a deal to merge the tournaments. Word of the union was announced just prior to Christmas of 2015, and fishermen were thrilled to hear the news.

During the unification proceedings it was decided that the 30th installment of the annual saltwater sport fishing showdown would take place in New Bedford. New Bedford has epitomized American fishing for many years from the whaling traditions of long ago to the scallop hunting fleets of today. For generations these dauntless sea dogs have established a distinguished heritage as harvesters of the sea. Over the last 15 years, New Bedford has ranked as the most lucrative fishing port in the entire country, beating out even the most profitable of Alaskan fisheries for revenue generation. This speaks volumes for the sustained significance of our New England fisheries. The long-term productivity of Massachusetts fisheries is due, in part, to the well-maintained balance between the fishermen and the environment. By supporting marine science and education, we achieve a better understanding of these oceanic ecosystems and the best means to preserve the perpetual viability of them.

Now officially known as the North Atlantic Monster Shark Tournament (NAMST), the event has become a non-profit event serving to promote the preservation of pelagic species and their aquatic environments, as well as to preserve our angling rights as fishermen. The NAMST understands that in order to develop and maintain sustainable fisheries, it is imperative to enhance our knowledge of these marine habitats. Proceeds from the 2016 NAMST and future events will be donated to the Steve James Memorial Scholarship Fund, as well as to benefit various sustainable fisheries research projects and fishermen's rights groups.

Since the merger, the fusion of friends and family has refueled the NAMST with an inspirational combination of experience, effort and enthusiasm, ensuring that the 30th anniversary edition of the tournament will, once again, be an angling event for the ages. It is also quite fitting that America's leading fishing port has finally landed the "Super Bowl of Sport Fishing". NAMST30 begins July 14th, as the festivities kick off at Fathoms Bar & Grille, on Pope's Island, for the annual Captains Meeting. Fishing will commence on Friday morning and conclude on Saturday the 16th. The Monster Shark Tournament weigh station will be located on State Pier 3 on the New Bedford waterfront and will be open for select times on Friday and Saturday. As always, the public is invited to attend. Anyone looking to register for the tournament or to learn more details regarding the event, should visit the OFFICIAL WEBSITE.

The Monster Shark Tournament has enjoyed an undeniably unique and colorful history over the last three decades. From the early years in the '80's when lifelong angling enthusiast Bobby Orr fished the event with his sons, to a few years later when former on-ice rivals, Jay Miller and Chris Nilan teamed up to crush the competition and win the 1994 MST. Throughout the golden years of shark mania, and the more recent dynasty years of Tuna Tangler Too and Magellan, the tournament has steadily evolved to remain the quintessential franchise for pelagic piscators. As the MST has continued to redefine itself, the event has rewritten the record books, advanced shark science and made a profound impact on the entire North Atlantic sport fishing scene.

The MST fleet will convene once again this summer as the latest chapter of the beloved thalassic saga unfolds. The exhilarating action of the 2016 North Atlantic Monster Shark Tournament begins July 14th. Anglers from up and down the east coast will answer the challenge and breach New Bedford's hurricane barrier to engage in the 30th installment of this time-honored, world-class fishing phenomenon. Does your crew possess enough fishing fortitude and seafaring skill to compete against the most accomplished anglers of the Atlantic? Breach the barrier, join the fleet and prepare for an epic adventure. There is always a chance your crew will hook up with a monster. However, just don't be surprised, if the Monster hooks you too!

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