OCEAN CITY -- As the first boats came to the scales late Thursday afternoon on the first day of the annual O.C. Shark Tournament, murmurs of expectation spread through the more than 200 spectators gathered on the deck near the Flying Fish Saloon.
Mark Sampson, the tournament director, who has popularized shark fishing over the years at Maryland's bustling oceanside resort, had relayed committee boat reports of good catches of blue and mako shark coming in, and the crowd at the Ocean City Fishing Center was anxious and curious.
Two elementary-school-age girls at the front of the crowd asked repeatedly of anyone who they thought would answer: "When will they be here? When are the sharks coming in?"
But while the curious were concerned with makos and blues, there were others troubled by recent developments that could result in ruin for the peak of the vacation fishing season.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, the arm of the federal government that regulates offshore fishing in U.S. waters, on June 13 initiated restrictive limits on recreational catches of bluefin tuna.
The new NMFS regulations, intended to cap overfishing, allow one bluefin tuna per boat per day.
"The fishing season down here is built around tuna," said Capt. Jimmy Swagler, who has been running charters out of Ocean City for 17 years. "Bluefin is the best game in town, and now we can't play."
The normal progression of the offshore seasons at Ocean City from May to September is bluefish, blue sharks, mako sharks, bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, dolphin and marlin.
The makos are in now, and in normal years bluefin tuna angling would bridge the gap between shark fishing and the start of strong marlin fishing early in August.
"People won't pay $800 to $1,000 or more per day for one bluefin per boat," said Swagler. "Most people that come down here to fish want to put something in the boat. They are meat fishermen."
Bluefin tuna is an inshore species usually caught 20 to 40 miles offshore in depths from 20 to 30 fathoms.
"These are the fish that grow to larger sizes," said Swagler, Delmarva area director for the Maryland Charter Boat Association.
"They're found closer to the beach than yellowfin, they're fished for in a different style and because they're closer inshore, that means more fishing time for [charter] parties."
Swagler and other recreational and charter captains said the NMFS regulations are too restrictive and will cause loss of revenue to the city, the county and the state.
"This is a vacation city; people come here to take a break and spend money," said Swagler. "They also spend money to get here -- gasoline, food, services and so on -- across the state. For some, if they can't fish, they won't come."
Figures were not available, but there are more than two dozen charter boats at the Ocean City Fishing Center alone, and there are several other major charter centers in the area, as well as hundreds of privately owned sport fishing boats docked in the area.
The O.C. Tuna Tournament held early each July drawns hundreds of competitors from along the Atlantic Coast and creates a three-day surge in the economy. Tuna remain a target in marlin tournaments through the end of the summer season.
With the bluefin regulations in effect, the tuna effort now probably will be aimed at yellowfin, which normally range 40 miles and more offshore, except when warmer currents bring them somewhat closer to the beach.
Yellowfin usually are taken trolling, while bluefin anglers often chunk. Chunking is a technique in which pieces of butterfish are used to attract the fish in a manner similar to Chesapeake Bay chumming.
"You really can't do both in one day," said Swagler. "And the logistics of it all are different, too. Now, anyone who has set up his season based on bluefin, has to switch tactics."
Charter operators often spend the first third of their season earning enough money to cover annual start-up costs -- boat repairs and upgrades, tackle repair and replacement, licensing, dockage, bait acquisition and so on.
"And in more than a few cases, it's more like the first 50 percent of the season," said Swagler. "So it's later in June or July until he starts to make money."
Outside the Flying Fish Saloon, a petition against the NMFS regulations was being circulated, and organizers plan to ask the state for help in rescinding or relaxing the regulations.
"This will have an impact not only on us," said Swagler, "but on the cottage industries and big business that are built on tuna."
Bait dealers. Fish cleaners. Marinas. Gas docks. Repair facilities. Tackle shops. Hotels and motels. Restaurants and bars.
Spiros Gianniotis, a sixth-grader from Washington, weighed in the biggest mako on Thursday, a 263-pounder boated after a 45-minute fight aboard his dad's Chaser.
Pano Gianniotis and Scott Raines, both mechanical engineers in the D.C. area, are avid sportfishermen who follow the seasons off Ocean City.
Shark fishing, they said, is just something to do until the tuna begin to move in and the serious fishing normally would begin.
"One bluefin per person per day, that's reasonable," said Pano Gianniotis. "But one fish per day per boat, that's ludicrous."
Pub Date: 6/22/97