Meat Us At Shark Fest
by Nicole Cammorata
A wide, toothy grin spread across Matt’s face as he shouldered the day’s haul: 30 pounds of fresh shark meat, caught by a crew of fisherman off the coast just a few hours earlier. He was as giddy as a kid who had just discovered a crumpled up dollar on the sidewalk.
We were on the Island for the weekend during last year’s Monster Shark Tournament—or “Shark Fest,” as Matt and his friends kept calling it. Growing up, it had been their tradition to check out the enormous sharks caught in the tournament, and it was something Matt had missed out on while he’d been in the Peace Corps for the last two years. This was to be a reunion of sorts, a bigger and better Shark Fest for the boys and my first time experiencing it.
Held on Martha’s Vineyard for more than a quarter century, the Monster Shark Tournament has been met with resistance in recent years, particularly from residents who felt that the oversized fishing derby had become a glorification of senseless killing, and that it brought the wrong sort of crowd to the Island. Animal rights activists were also not pleased. After the death of founder Steve James in January, it appears that the Vineyard tradition has died, too—the tournament will operate in Newport, Rhode Island this year in a seemingly permanent move.
Then oblivious to all of this, we ogled and ate and drank our way through the very last Monster Shark Tournament, in the shadows of Spielberg’s fictional Amity Island, caught between the gore and the beauty, our disgust and our fascination.
It was the second day of the tournament. We stood beside the harbor, just beyond slip 7, where the boats were nestled so closely together that you could walk from deck to deck without ever needing to touch a pier. It was late afternoon and everyone was gathered—dads with little kids propped up on their shoulders, out-of-towners and locals alike—all craning their necks to get a glimpse of the day’s catch. When the first shark came in, too many people blocked our view. We hustled around to the other side of the scale, where the 300-pound fish had been dragged off of the boat and hooked up to be weighed.
A burly, sun-tanned man yanked at the rope, fist over fist, raising the porbeagle shark up for everyone to get a better look, its greyish skin smeared in blood. The crowd oohed and ahhed, pulling out cameras, clicking cell phones and, in one case, a giant iPad. After the weigh-in, the crew dragged the lifeless body over to a white slab to be taken apart. It was here that we got a better look. The shark’s eyes were big and deep-sea black. Its mouth looked puny and unassuming. I could only imagine its beauty underwater, weightless in its element, but on land the shark’s body was awkward and limp.
A 40-something female biologist, clad in daisy-printed galoshes and a pink t-shirt, got to work. Wielding perhaps the biggest (and definitely the sharpest) knife I’ve ever seen, she set about slicing open the underbelly of the shark, removing its stomach in one piece. Next came the heart and the rest of the innards, and in a couple of cases, a whole lot of blood. She took off the fins and carved around the gills, took samples and bagged them up, then parsed out hunks of shark meat into black bins. Every bit went somewhere, either to be eaten or studied.
The winning team pulled in the two biggest sharks of the weekend, each weighing in at more than 300 pounds. As the last shark of the day was hoisted up onto the scale, the tournament’s emcee announced that the winners’ fate was sealed, this final catch fetching the crew of the Magellan, out of Harwich, Mass., over $200,000. The announcer added that the crew, with more shark than they knew what to do with, would be happy to share with anyone who wanted some. All we had to do was stop by slip 12.
Matt’s eyes lit up. “We need to get some of that shark,” he said.
He was a man on a mission: that shark would be his.
I ran for ice down the street, and then we set about re-arranging our measly cooler that, up until that point, had been filled with beer. We stalked slip 12, making friends with the crew aboard as a crowd began to gather. The guys on the boat at slip 11 had made a show of their sharks, or at least, all that remained of them: a jaw here, a fin there, and a bloody, severed head.
Growing impatient, Matt dragged me down to where the Magellan crew was loading up the meat.
“Hey, I was wondering if you’re the guys with the shark meat?” he asked, knowing well they were. They nodded, and loaded us up with more than either of us knew what to do with: more than we could store, and certainly more than we could eat.
So the guys bought a grill, and some paper plates, plastic utensils, and charcoal, while I snagged lemons from the seafood stand. Matt lugged the trash bag full of meat over his shoulder down Seaview Ave., thrilled with his luck— no matter how heavy that bag was, he wasn’t about to let anyone know.
We scurried down the dunes and onto the warm sand, making camp between an abandoned sand castle and a long-forgotten beach chair. The air was cooling off a bit after a week-long heat wave and it was a beautiful night just to be outside.
Matt took up as chef, cutting up the shark with a flimsy souvenir army knife, with a faux bois finish and Martha’s Vineyard written across the side: the best we could find, it got the job done. As the coals burned, a bright moon rose overhead and reflected just enough light for us to see what we were doing. Matt tossed the shark bites onto the grill and tended to them gingerly. The meat cooked fast, and we took our first bites: tender and full, akin to swordfish, with a hint of sweetness like scallops. It was delicious.
In the distance, heat lightning lit up the sky. We could hear the rowdy revelers in town up above, waking up the neighbors and validating every complaint about the tournament that’s been thrown around in recent years. Down on the beach though it was peaceful and quiet—only the sizzling of shark meat, and the rhythmic swishing of the water against the shore. We weren’t really here for the party anyway. We were here for the shark.