WASHINGTON – Ocean City charter boat captain Mark Sampson’s specialty is shark and his customers willingly shell out up to $900 for a full day of off- shore fishing on his six-passenger boat.
But Sampson fears he might have an unwelcome shipmate this season – Big Brother.
Proposed new federal regulations could require government observers to accompany some boats and could limit the number of sharks, swordfish, marlin and tuna that recreational fishermen can keep.
“People are paying a lot of money to come out here,” said Sampson, who is also the chairman of the Ocean City Charter Boat Captain’s Association. “Some customers wouldn’t feel comfortable with a stranger on board and I don’t want a perception by the customers that Big Brother is watching.”
The proposed regulations have recreational fishermen reeling in Ocean City, which bills itself as the “White Marlin Capital of the World.” They say they are being unfairly targeted by the new rules, which they claim will do little to rebuild dwindling fish populations.
And public response to the proposed limits has been enormous, said Chris Rogers, a fishery management specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Instead of the 30-40 people who usually attend such meetings, crowds of 250 to 300 turned out at each of the 27 public hearings on the proposed regulations, Rogers said. The mail count climbed “into the thousands,” compared to the usual hundreds.
By the March deadline for public input, Rogers said, his office was receiving “almost a Xerox box full of comments every day,” including one letter signed by 60 members of Congress.
The regulations are currently under final review by the Fisheries Service and could take effect June 1. One regulation will protect “billfish,” such as blue and white marlin. The other plans to safeguard migratory species that include coastal and deep-sea sharks, Atlantic tuna and swordfish.
Under the draft billfish regulation, recreational fishermen would be limited to one fish per boat per trip and the season could be canceled as soon as the overall bag limit was reached. That provision concerns organizers of Ocean City’s White Marlin Open, one of the largest billfish tournaments on the East Coast.
“It would be kind of hard to have awards going to the heaviest fish when you can’t bring it in,” said tournament chairman Jim Motsko.
Rogers said there has been no billfish limit for recreational fisherman since a temporary limit of one fish per boat expired in mid-March. He expects the new limits to be in place before the marlin return this summer.
The other regulation will affect both the recreational and commercial harvest of species including Atlantic tuna, swordfish and sharks. Under the draft regulation, yellowfin tuna, which currently have no limit for recreational fishermen, will be limited to three fish per angler on each trip.
Shark fishing would be hardest hit by the regulations. With the exception of a handful of species that anglers are now prohibited from keeping, such as the great white shark, the current limit is two sharks per trip per day. The new regulation would ban the fishing of coastal sharks, such as the hammerhead, blue and tiger sharks, and set a limit of one deep-sea shark per boat per day.
Recreational anglers complain that the proposed regulations are “attacking the wrong people.”
“They’re not addressing the commercial industry, who are responsible for the decline in fish,” Sampson said.
But commercial fishermen do not like the draft regulation either. Nelson Beideman, executive director of the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, said commercial fishermen are already over-regulated and blamed foreign fishermen for depleting Atlantic waters.
He said U.S. and Canadian commercial fishermen follow tight international catch standards, but that European and Asian ships fishing the North Atlantic do not follow conservative practices.
Beideman said commercial boats already endure strict federal monitoring and regulation, even though they harvest about the same number as recreational fishermen.
He said the proposed regulations would hurt “longline” fishermen, those in 60- to 80-foot commercial vessels that trail fishing line averaging 25 miles in length, with hooks set every 300 feet. The boats fish 80 to 300 miles offshore for several weeks at a time.
“It will destroy the economics of pelagic (deep sea) fishing and we will have to go to court” if the proposals become regulation, he said.
But David Wilmot, the director of the Ocean Wildlife Campaign Coalition, said the proposed regulations “came up far to short” in protecting the large ocean fish. Although his group supports much of what is being proposed, “there are too many huge gaps,” he said.
One the most glaring holes, he said, is the failure to protect marlin and swordfish that are now accidentally caught on longlines. Known as by-catch, the dead fish are thrown overboard and account for the loss of 30,000 to 40,000 swordfish a year, Wilmot claimed.
“(The Fisheries Service) used some rhetoric and proposed basically nothing to protect the marlin,” he said.
One thing all sides agree on is that some sort of protection is needed.
“You might have tourists participating in recreational fishing this year, no problem,” said Sherman Baynard, chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, which seeks to protect fish in the interest of recreational anglers. “But in 10 years there might not be an industry left.”