Sharks could soon be invading the coastal waters of northern Oregon. The well-being of tourists would be at stake. Surfers would surf at greater risk. Sailboarders would sail ill at ease. Children playing at the water's edge might face imminent danger.
"We are surfers, sailboarders, swimmers, jet skiers. It's our playground," Steve McKenzie said of the waters in and about the Columbia River. The former logging and commercial fishing region has been transformed largely into an area that relies heavily on tourism and recreation--and, more recently, into one embroiled in controversy over a coming event.
McKenzie, owner of a surf shop in Seaside, a coastal community about 15 miles south of the Columbia River, is one of a growing number of citizens deeply concerned about the forthcoming "first annual Columbia River-Pacific Ocean SHARK Tournament."
There has never been a shark-fishing tournament off the Oregon coast, and the announcement of the Aug. 3-4 contest has met unexpected resistance.
Residents are writing to state agencies in protest. A collective assault on the "shark hunt" has begun. An injunction is being sought to stop it. Store owners are refusing to display posters advertising the event, citing fear of boycotts on the part of consumers.
"It's really weird. I had no idea that this kind of reaction would take place," said biologist Larry Hreha, a shark expert with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's kind of like the movie, 'Jaws.' You get that type of mentality going and it just feeds on itself."
Ron Miller, an attorney and charter boat owner responsible for organizing the tournament, said he did so to help out some of the charter operators facing hard times and "to pump some money into the economy at the same time."
Federally imposed restrictions on salmon fishing have curtailed several operations. Salmon fishing is no longer allowed in the ocean on Fridays and Saturdays--to allow the fish to move freely up the river and its tributaries--and seasons have been restricted significantly in recent years.
Ed Dollman of Reel 'Em In Charters in Ilwaco, Wash., a tournament sponsor located on the coast just across the Columbia River, said that when he arrived in 1978, the season ran from May 1 to the end of October.
"Last year, we fished a total of 10 days before the operation was shut down," he said. "What we're trying to do is pick up some extra income to make up for these lousy short seasons we're getting."
Enter the shark tournament, which prompted Josh Gizdavich, owner of a sailboard store in Warrenton, Ore., to warn the Oregonian newspaper that the contest "could create fear and hysteria."
The contest already appears to have done that.
Susanna Hendrix of Seaside told the Oregonian that an employee of a charter-fishing operation told her the waters are already being "chummed" with blood and guts to attract sharks to the area. "Who will tell the sharks that have been lured in from many, many miles away that it's time to go home now?" she asked in a letter sent to various state agencies.
Chumming is illegal within three miles of the Oregon coast. The Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that it would probably make an exception for the tournament, but backed off because of pressure from the public. Non-anglers insist it still is going on.
"The people are extremely worried that what we're going to do is pour blood all over the ocean and put different scraps and everything else in to attract sharks," Dollman said. "This (theoretically) would create some type of chaos amongst swimmers--they figure we're going to bring the sharks in there and they'll eat them up."
Doc Doolittle, a Seaside and Hood River representative for sailboard makers and organizer of a competition scheduled Aug. 26, said that a strong current runs south from the Columbia River to Seaside and back north in a circular motion that would carry any chum dumped into the sea along the entire stretch of beach.
The result, he said, would be "to have solid whites (great white sharks) from the mouth of the river to Seaside."
Shark experts emphatically reject such a claim, saying chances are extremely slim of white sharks gathering near the coast.
"They just don't occur in large numbers," said Bob Lea, a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game who has done extensive research on sharks. "There seems to be a misconception (about the behavior of sharks) up there."
Lea did say that all shark attacks off the Oregon coast have involved great whites. But only six have ever been documented. None were fatal.
And although the current Doolitle mentions does exist, according to shark expert Hreha, that does not mean that chumming would increase the number of sharks in the area.
"If there was a problem with chumming, it would certainly have shown up in past years," Hreha said. "Any day during the salmon season, you've got hundreds, maybe thousands of boats out there, catching thousands of salmon. Most of those salmon . . . they're split open, their guts are thrown over board, the gills and the heads.
"And (the salmon fishing boats) are operating much closer to shore than I think the shark tournament will operate. So, if there was going to be a problem, it certainly would have shown up by now."
Chumming for sharks has yet to create such a stir in Southern California, where shark fishing and shark tournaments are becoming increasingly popular.
There have been few complaints about the possibility of an increased likelihood of attacks. None of the incidents involving shark-human interactions have been blamed on fishermen chumming for sharks.
But Oregonians insist chumming for sharks sets a dangerous precedent. "Who's going to be liable should there be an attack?" McKenzie asked. "Who's going to put up signs to warn the swimmers to stay out of the water?"
These fears have been raised repeatedly despite Miller's insistence that shark fishing will take place as far as 30 miles from the coast, where most species of sharks occur.
But the public isn't buying that, either.
"Three miles to a white shark is like a walk to the grocery store to you and me," McKenzie said. "Sixty miles is nothing to a white shark."
Meanwhile, Miller said the first annual Columbia River-Pacific Ocean SHARK Tournament will go on as scheduled, with a few dozen boats already signed up--at a cost of $600 each--and several more expected to be entered before the event.
But he isn't sure there will be a second tournament.
"I thought this would benefit the whole community--the five Columbia River ports," he said. "I thought it was a good idea at the time."