NEWBURYPORT — For seven years the annual Newburyport Shark & Tuna Tournament in 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.
Hollywood filmmaker and Massachusetts native Eli Roth, who has directed the box office hits like "Hostel" and "The House With a Clock in Its Walls," is calling for the tournament, and all similar ones across the country, to be halted in effort to protect endangered shark species.
But tournament director Larry Collins said the yearly event is actually saving sharks — not endangering them. The vast majority of sharks caught are released, he said, and many are tagged beforehand. Data about the tagged sharks 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 being canceled after pressure from environmentalists and activists. Earlier this week, the town of Fairhaven canceled 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 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. It attracts up to 50 anglers per year, and raises upward of $7,000 per year for a Boston-based cancer research center.
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. Of those released, he added, many were tagged and data sent to NOAA for its Apex Predators Program.
"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. The information gathered helps provides baseline biological data for the management of large Atlantic sharks, according to NOAA.
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.
But Roth said the killing of one shark was one too many and that it was time to erase 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.
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.
In a text message Holaday said she hopes that organizers do a "fully catch and release program."