A Standish woman who received international attention last summer for her shark-tagging efforts as a volunteer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was crowned Miss Maine USA 2016 on Sunday.

Marisa Butler, 21, is a senior at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., where she majors in economics and minors in business. She topped 25 other contestants during the annual Miss Maine USA and Miss Maine Teen USA pageant, which was held at Sable Oaks Marriott in South Portland. She received her crown from outgoing titleholder Heather Elwell.

Butler, a 2012 Bonny Eagle High School graduate, went into the competition with more confidence than she has before, she said, due to the time and energy she spent preparing. She said she is excited – and a little overwhelmed – about her new title.

“This is by far the most elite group of women I have ever competed against,” she said. “I mean that wholeheartedly. Everyone was on their A-game. It’s really humbling that they picked me out of a whole group of women.”

Jessica Stewart, 17, of Unity, took home the title of Miss Maine Teen USA 2016.

Rocky Graziano, executive director of the Miss Boston pageant and one of the Maine pageant judges, told the Lakes Region Weekly in an email that he was impressed by Butler’s confidence and tenacity.

“Her dedication to success in pageantry on top of her work with sharks and school shows young people that you can balance multiple goals and be successful at all of them,” Graziano said.

Butler said that her boyfriend, Elliot Sudal, a shark angler known as the “Nantucket Shark Wrestler,” got her interested in tagging sharks for the NOAA Cooperative Shark Tagging Program. Butler assisted Sudal in Puerto Rico, Florida and Nantucket in his efforts to reel in and tag sandbar sharks in order to implant tags in their dorsal fins to collect data to send to NOAA to help the agency monitor shark migration patterns, growth rates and more.

“It was a lot of fun, and I kind of got hooked on it,” said Butler.

Two days after she and Sudal were featured in the British tabloid The Daily Mail, a man named Drew Scerbo, who claimed to be a shark expert, criticized Butler and Sudal on Facebook saying that her fishing efforts had nothing to do with conservation. Another critic, John Abernethy, who owns a commercial scuba diving company in Florida, claimed that the couple was harming the sharks by dragging them onto the beach. Butler told the Lakes Region Weekly in July that she even received death threats for her efforts.

Butler also said that the couple did not drag the sharks onto dry sand. She said they submerged the sharks in just enough water during the tagging process so it was safe for both the sharks and the couple. According to Butler, the criticism was “very unfounded.”

“It is an issue I did stress in my (Miss Maine) interview, and it was helpful in the process of making me stand out,” Butler said this week. “It’s definitely just a seasonal hobby of mine.”

“There are no conclusive studies that this is unsafe to them,” she said. “There have been studies that have proven that within six hours these sharks are back to normal.”

Butler graduated from Bonny Eagle in the top 10 percent of her class. Along with angling for sharks, her other hobbies include singing opera, cheerleading and playing varsity soccer and lacrosse at Stonehill College. She also enjoys traveling, hiking and exercising, she said.

Sunday’s pageant was Butler’s second attempt at the Miss Maine USA crown. Butler was the first runner-up in the 2011 Miss Maine Teen USA competition, and was a runner-up in the Maine state competition for the Miss America contest three years in a row, from 2012-2014. The Miss America organization also named Butler Miss Maine National Sweetheart in June 2013 and Miss Sebago Lake Region in September 2013.

Butler said what she has enjoyed most about competing in pageants are the friendships she has formed with the other contestants and “the fact that it really gives you a chance to get to know who you are and what you stand for.” As Miss Maine USA she hopes to serve as a role model for other women her age, she said.

She wants to spread the message that “it’s OK to be different,” she said.

Graziano said the attention Butler received for her shark-tagging efforts had nothing to do with her winning the pageant, however.

“Yes, it’s interesting and different and a great talking point, but she won the crown for her beauty, poise and confidence,” he said. “Her beauty is matched with her wit and intelligence, making her the total package.”

The contestants in the Miss Maine USA pageant in Portland this past weekend competed in three segments: evening gown, fitness/swimsuit and the interview.

As Miss Maine, Butler will be working with several charities, including Camp Sunshine, the United Service Organizations, Best Buddies International and more, throughout the year.

Next year Butler will compete in the 2016 Miss USA Pageant, the date of which has yet to be announced. The winner of Miss USA will go on to represent the United States in the Miss Universe competition.

“I am completely blown away that I am going to be on the Miss USA stage,” Butler said. “Statistically, you’re more likely to be an NFL football player than walk on that stage. That’s the Super Bowl of all pageants. I am really looking forward to it.”

Butler said she is prepared to answer any questions from judges at the national pageant related to her shark-tagging experience should the topic arise.

“You kind of have (to be) if you are faced with public criticism,” said Butler. “If you Google me, you will find a million things (about me). National judges, of course, are going to Google every single one of these contestants.”

Conservation is part of Butler’s pageant platform. She said she hopes to change the public’s perception of sharks going forward.

“A lot of people don’t realize that because they are predators, that they need to have protection,” she said. “Seventy to 100 million sharks are killed yearly either for their fin or as bycatch. It is something that we all need to be aware of because we can set up stricter fishing laws, and set up sanctuaries, (which) will help promote public policy regarding (sharks). If we can do that, we can help preserve the population.”

“Honestly,” she added, “what it all comes down to is the fact that I am working closely with the real experts within the field and I am going to continue to abide by what they’re telling me. As long as they are OK with what I am doing, then I am going to keep doing it. At this point, it’s about getting out the right message.”

Marisa Butler, 21, of Standish, was crowned Miss Maine USA 2016 on Sunday.Marisa Butler, who’ll represent Maine in the Miss USA Pageant next year, poses with a shark she tagged on Nantucket this summer.Marisa Butler


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