Fishermen await release of federal oversight plan

Charter boat captains fear regulations will hurt business

April 22, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Strict new rules for marlin, bluefin tuna, swordfish, sharks and other game fish have Ocean City charter boat captains complaining that heavy-handed federal oversight is threatening their business.

About a month before the regulations take effect June 1, recreational anglers and charter boat operators are waiting for final word from the National Marine Fisheries Service about which species of fish they will be allowed to catch and keep and how long the seasons will be.

"I've seen the regulations get tighter and tighter over the years," said Bob Gowar, chief captain at the Ocean City Fishing Center, where 35 charter boat captains tie up. "The recreational fishermen take the beating on everything that goes down."

Two years in the making, the fisheries management plan aims to protect migratory species such as swordfish, tuna and some species of sharks. The plan is set for release Monday and federal officials say they have tried to balance the interests of commercial and recreational fishermen.

"We've seen that coastal sharks, for instance, are overfished," said Rebecca Lent, who heads the fishery service division that regulates highly migratory species. "This plan has had unprecedented public input. We have, indeed, listened. The idea is to address conservation issues with as little impact [on anglers] as possible."

Recreational and sport fishermen complain that the regulations favor commercial boats. In a draft fishery management plan, the fisheries service proposed requiring recreational fishermen to release sharks that the commercial industry would be allowed to catch and sell.

"Imagine being out and getting a big shark, a possible record fish and having to release it," said Mark Sampson, captain of the Fish Finder, a 42-foot charter boat. "Now imagine seeing that same shark in the fish market that afternoon because that fish is not off limits to the commercial guys. That's the kind of thing we're facing."

Sam Martin, who operates a 72-foot commercial trawler out of Ocean City, says regulation of the charter captains and recreational anglers is overdue. Federal scrutiny of commercial and recreational fishing 15 to 20 years ago would have prevented overfishing of many species, he said.

"The deal on the commercial side is that we're used to regulation," Martin said. "The government is finally seeing the need to regulate the recreational people and they're all up in arms. It's the same reaction we had initially."

One proposal under the draft management plan released this spring -- placing a fisheries service observer aboard charter boats -- has been opposed by captains who don't want to give up valuable space. Most captains book four to six customers each trip, who share the average $900-a-day cost of ocean fishing.

Commercial captains have little sympathy, Martin says, as they have been accommodating federal observers on their boats for years.

Federal officials said placing observers aboard charter boats remains an option for inclusion in the management plan.

Sampson, chairman of the Ocean City Charter Boat Captain's Association, said his colleagues are worried about limits on the number of bluefin tuna their customers can keep.

Because most sharks and billfish, such as marlin, are released after they're caught as a voluntary preservation effort, charter operators have come to rely more on catching and keeping bluefin, a fish sought by nearly one-third of the anglers who book Ocean City charters each year.

"One of the reasons we're in a pickle is because bluefin are already regulated by international treaties," Sampson said. "And they've become such an important part of the charter industry. There's a big customer demand."

Another sore point for charter captains is the way federal authorities count the number of bluefin tuna landed by anglers. Instead of relying on estimates based on phone calls placed by fishermen who report their catch, recreational fishermen are urging the federal agencies to adopt a tagging program similar to one used in North Carolina. There, information about each fish is recorded after each trip and reported to authorities when the boat docks.

The tag program has worked well enough that Maryland's Department of Natural Resources will try a version this summer at seven commercial marinas and the Ocean City Coast Guard station.

"We're not opposed to regulation," said Sampson. "If the fish is in danger of overfishing, it has to be handled. But we believe the way data has been collected is flawed and that's playing with people's careers and their livelihood."

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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