OAK BLUFFS - Revelers were just heading home from the bars when the Lady Ashley slipped out of the harbor early Friday morning and headed south.
"Let's go catch the big one," the boat's captain, Tom Maiuri, said as he steered the 30-foot craft under a full moon so bright it cast shadows of the crew onto the boat's pristine teak deck.
The owner of Gloucester's Lady Ashley Sport Fishing Charters doesn't normally go after sharks and when he happens to catch them while he's tuna fishing he usually throws them back. But this weekend, the weekend of the Oak Bluffs Monster Fishing Tournament, there is money in it. Big money.
"It's expensive, and it's dangerous, but you can win a lot of money," he said. "For $250,000 would you kill a shark? Yeah. I have my kids to think about."
Grand prize for reeling in the biggest sharks in the tournament is a $50,000 boat. But between the Calcutta pool and other side bets, a winning fisherman can net as much as a quarter-million dollars in one weekend. That's part of what drives hundreds of amateur and professional fisherman from across the country to descend upon this tiny island town each year for two days of serious shark fishing.
One of the biggest fishing tournaments on the East Coast and one of the last remaining shark tournaments in the country, the event has been mired in controversy as environmentalists clamor for its end, saying that global shark populations are in steep decline and that killing sharks is inhumane.
Last spring, a divided Board of Selectmen voted to sever its ties with the event, denying organizers access to a public park where a captain's banquet was traditionally held and refusing to grant a one-day liquor license for the event.
"These are massive fuel-consuming boats that go out and deplete the ocean's resources," said Ron DiOrio, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. "As policy makers, we have to examine what we do and the footprint it leaves."
The move infuriated some residents. Asked in a nonbinding question on the ballot last year whether the town should continue to allow use of town property to shark tournaments, 458 Oak Bluffs residents said yes while 386 said no.
"They're pushing their agenda and not listening to the people that voted them in; it's sickening," said Doug Abdelnour Jr., whose family has owned the waterfront restaurant Nancy's since the 1960s.
A shark fisherman himself, the jaws of a world-record 1,221-pound mako he caught in the 2001 tournament now adorn the walls of his restaurant.
"Shark fishing isn't illegal," he said. "If they have a problem, they need to bring it up with the Division of Marine Fisheries, not the tournament."
With the economy down and fuel prices up, Steven James, president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, said that entries were about 20 percent lower than last year. That combined with pressure from the town has led some to wonder how long he will keep the event on Martha's Vineyard, or how long it will exist. But James says he is not going anywhere.
"We've made a lot of friends in Oak Bluffs," he said. "It's a great tradition, and I'm going to keep it alive as long as I can."
On the island where the movie "Jaws" was filmed, sparking a nationwide mania, sharks have always meant money and this event is no different. Fishermen, buy gallons of fuel, pounds of ice and cans of beer by the hundreds, and thousands of spectators gather on the harbor to watch the animals get weighed.
At least four bars in downtown Oak Bluffs advertised themselves as "Shark Tourney Party Headquarters" last week, and in several establishments imbibers could pay a few extra dollars for their drink and get a Monster Shark Tournament souvenir glass. Many said the tournament brings in more revenue than the Fourth of July. The event is estimated to bring more than $3 million a year to Oak Bluffs alone.
"July Fourth is big and this decimates it," said Tad Doss, a college student who has worked three summers on the island. "They're big spenders, good tippers. They're always stepping all over each other over who's going to pay."
Maiuri, the Gloucester charter captain, estimates that he has spent $14,000 on fuel, entry fees, ice, bait, and hotels.
"That doesn't even include going out," he said.
Annoyed by the opposition, the crew of the Lady Ashley decided to strike back this year, making team T-shirts protesting the protesters. "Big or Small, Kill 'Em All," the shirts read.
"Protesters," Maiuri said. "Not sharks. . . . Fishing's been around a lot longer than those PETA people."
Fishing 53 miles offshore Friday, whenever a shark was reeled in that wasn't to be kept, the captain put a gloved hand within inches of the fish's mouth and used a pair of pliers and a knife to wrangle the hook out.
"I'm trying to get this out, don't bite me" he said to a 120-pound blue shark that thrashed beside the boat. In his pocket was a tag taken off the back of the shark, which Maiuri will send to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration along with the date and place of his catch. This will help researchers track the migratory habits of the animals.
Over the course of the day, 12 sharks were caught. Two makos were kept: one weighed into the tournament at 208 pounds and another, caught earlier in the day, was headed for the barbecue.
"It's like swordfish," Maiuri said. "Only better."
Tania deLuzuriaga can be reached at email@example.com.