WASHINGTON – Ocean City fishermen worry that a lawsuit aimed at making the Atlantic white marlin an endangered species could threaten their standing as the self-described “White Marlin Capital of the World.”
The suit, filed earlier this month in federal court in Washington, charges that the National Marine Fisheries Service erred when it refused to protect the fish, which has fallen to 6 percent of its natural population.
Jim Chambers, a former biologist at the fisheries service who supports the suit, said that without protection the marlin population faces the very real threat of extinction in less than five years.
Chambers, who tried unsuccessfully to get protection for the marlin in 2001, said the real enemies of the marlin are commercial fisheries. He called it “misinformation” to say that recreational fishermen will be hurt if marlin are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“They (recreational fisheries) don’t need to be shut down or regulated,” Chambers said. “We repeatedly have said that.”
Such assurances are little comfort to Frank Pettolina, owner of the Ocean City boat-charter service Last Call.
“They didn’t name it the ‘White Marlin Capital of the World’ for nothing,” Pettolina said. “People come down here to fish marlin. That’s a lot of our business in July and August and September.”
The White Marlin Fishing Open — which last year awarded a prize of more than $1 million for a catch — draws huge crowds and boat-rental business to Ocean City every summer.
“Stopping us from fishing for marlins is going to really hurt our business,” said Pettolina. He said that the Ocean City Marlin Club keeps its own statistics on marlin population, and as far as he knows the marlin are doing just fine.
City officials also worry that sport and recreational fishermen could be unfairly punished for the decreased marlin population.
“We would hope that the white marlins are not placed on the endangered species list. We believe that the threat to the species has been shown to be more with the commercial industry than the sport fishing,” said Donna Abbot, media services manager for Ocean City’s Department of Tourism.
Pettolina said that closing certain waters to marlin fishing could also inhibit fishing for other sport fish, such as swordfish and tuna that live in the same waters. He said he and other charter owners worry that new regulations will prohibit recreational fishing altogether if the marlin gains endangered species protection.
Barry Thom, a fisheries service biologist, said protecting marlin would not necessarily mean that other fish would be off-limits: It would depend on whether the marlin was listed as threatened or endangered, for example, and whether special rules could be tailored to the specific fishery.
But he said there’s no guarantee other fish would not be affected, either.
“You can’t say it (recreational fishing) would not be affected in some way if the fish was listed. But the magnitude of that effect would remain to be seen,” Thom said.
Fishing is one of Ocean City’s greatest attractions. If people can’t fish, Pettolina speculated, then tourism might decrease and other local industries will suffer as a result.
But Chambers said that without some sort of protection, the marlin population will continue to decline. Both the recreational fishing community and the marlin will suffer if the species is not preserved, he said.
The suit was filed Jan. 13 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network. The fisheries service has 60 days to respond to the suit.
-30- CNS 01-23-04