NEWBURYPORT – For seven years the annual Newburyport Shark & Tuna Tournament held each July has gone off without much fanfare. But this year's tournament, which begins Saturday and runs for a week, is proving to be different, as the practice of catching sharks for sport has drawn the ire of Hollywood filmmaker and Massachusetts native Eli Roth.
Roth, who has directed box office hits like "Hostel" and "The House With a Clock in Its Walls," is calling for the tournament, and all similar tournaments across the country, to be halted in an effort to protect endangered shark species.
But the tournament's director, Larry Collins, said the yearly event is actually saving sharks – not endangering them. The vast majority of sharks caught are released, he said, adding that many of them are tagged before release, and data about the shark is shared with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Roth said his determination to stop tournaments came during the five years he spent researching and directing the documentary "Fin," a no-holds barred screed against shark fishing released earlier this month as part of Shark Week.
"We can't do this as entertainment," Roth said of fishing for sharks, during a Tuesday phone interview.
Shark and other fishing tournaments have created waves of controversy across New England with some tourneys being cancelled after pressure from environmentalists and activists. Earlier this week, the town of Fairhaven cancelled its North Atlantic Monster Shark Tournament after public pressure. Since its inception in 1987, the Fairhaven tournament has drawn participants from across the country.
Collins called the Newburyport event, which attracts up to 50 anglers per year, and raises upwards of $7,000 per year for a Boston-based cancer research center, a "very responsibly run tournament" which provides a boost to the local economy as well as increases the profile of the nearby Custom House Maritime Museum.
The entry fee for the tournament ranges from $700 to $1,000 depending on what species is being fished. The grand prize is based on the number of entries but can be as high $6,000.
Collins pushed back on the perception that sharks were being slaughtered in great numbers each year during the local tournament.
He said that in last year's tournament, one shark was killed while 300 were caught and released. Many of them, he added, were tagged and data sent to NOAA for its Apex Predators Program, Collins said.
"Look, I applaud their passion, but we share the same goal," Collins said.
The Apex Predators Program conducts life history studies of commercially and recreationally important shark species. Information gathered from research programs provides baseline biological data for the management of large Atlantic sharks, according to the NOAA website.
Collins accused Roth and other critics of conflating what Collins called the "atrocious number of shark deaths" by illegal fishing practices with shark tournaments that are bound by strict guidelines and requirements.
"That's not where we're doing," Collins said.
But Roth said the killing of one shark was one too many and that it was time for society to stop the common perception that it is acceptable to hunt sharks for sport.
"We have to say why we are doing this," Roth said, adding that sharks are getting "wiped out" across the globe and that it must stop before it's too late. "They don't have a chance."
The tournament has also drawn the attention of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, business owner Gabe DiSaverio who met with Mayor Donna Holaday on Wednesday morning to discuss the city's role. DiSaverio, who runs a hot sauce company called Spicy Shark, said he is not against the tournament or anglers but is hoping to change the focus of the event.
"My goal is for no sharks to be killed for the tournament," DiSaverio said.
Earlier this week, The Daily News of Newburyport published DiSaverio's letter to the editor calling for the city to "stop supporting the unnecessary death of more threatened sharks."
On Wednesday, a city official released a statement saying the tournament was not a city-run event and the city's only role was to keep the public safe.
"The city has no role in organizing or promoting fishing tournaments other than ensuring public safety and municipal maritime regulations are followed," the statement reads. "Fishing licenses and quotas are not determined or enforced at the municipal level. It is Mayor Holaday's expectation that all fishing vessels departing and offloading at Newburyport are fishing responsibly, ethically and within their license under the law. It is all fishermen's responsibility to ensure a sustainable, lasting population for generations to come."
However, in a text message Holaday said she hopes that organizers do a "fully catch and release program."