Hook a shark and you'll hook a crowd

ON THE OUTDOORS

June 20, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

A knot of about 150 adults and children -- kids of all ages, really -- tightened around the weigh-in dock at the Ocean City Fishing Center late Thursday afternoon. Murmurs rose through a misting rain, and a handful of young girls stifled shrieks, as a 7-foot shark was hoisted on the scales.

"You know, you can have a 300-pound tuna here and a 50-pound shark over there, and the crowd will be drawn to the shark," said Dale Timmons, lifelong resident of Ocean City and editor and publisher of the Coastal Fisherman. "It's always been that way. People are just fascinated by sharks."

The 206-pound mako, caught by Fritz Sine aboard the Mojo, was not remarkable. Several weeks earlier, the Memory Maker had brought in a 315-pound mako, and earlier this month Donnie Simon of Annapolis brought in a state-record thresher that weighed 585 pounds and was 15 feet, 11 inches long.

But Sine's catch was big enough to take the early lead in the Ocean City Shark Tournament and, as he held the mouth open to show rows of sharp teeth, to excite the crowd.

Cameras flashed and clicked. Necks craned. A DJ for a local radio station sent out the news, collared Sine for a quick interview and urged anyone listening to come on down and see the show.

Tournament organizer Mark Sampson stood to the side, head slightly down and a thin grin visible beneath the long bill of his cap.

Sampson is and has been the premier shark fisherman in Ocean City for more than 15 years, running 60 or more charters per season for makos, hammerheads, blues and other sharks that range from inshore waters out to the deep.

And while sharks still stir any crowd, Sampson has seen the fishery off Ocean City change through the years and has become an advocate for conservation of the species, preferring to catch and release sharks.

"As a kid I was fascinated by sharks, and I used to gobble up every bit of information on them I could lay my hands on," said Sampson, 41.

In the late 1970s, when much of the charter fishing business in Ocean City focused on big bluefish migrating along the coast, fishermen on the ocean side pier would catch sharks regularly -- and occasionally bring in a big tiger shark or hammerhead.

"I can remember being on the pier and seeing hammerheads swimming below me and then look a few dozen yards to either side and seeing people swimming or playing in the surf," said Timmons, 52. "The sharks were always there, we knew it and they never caused any problems, really."

But commercial and recreational fishermen have been causing problems for sharks, and the National Marine Fisheries Service this year has 19 kinds of shark on its prohibited species list. The sand tiger, white, long fin mako, bigeye thresher and Atlantic angel sharks are among those prohibited species occasionally encountered off Ocean City.

The dusky shark is the only prohibited species frequently encountered off Maryland's coast.

On open species, NMFS regulations allow recreational anglers to keep only one shark per day per boat, and the minimum size allowed is 4 1/2 feet at fork length. In the Ocean City Shark Tournament, however, the minimum is 6 feet total length.

"It used to be that we had more action for big sharks close to shore," said Sampson, who also runs tuna, billfish and wreck trips on his boat, Fish Finder. "Now it is more smaller sharks inshore later in the summer, while the bigger ones are 20 to 30 miles out."

Sampson attributes the changes to overfishing by recreational anglers and commercial operations and to changes in the food chain.

"Big sharks like big bluefish, which we don't have anymore," said Sampson, "and when you have a smaller food source, you get a smaller shark."

But the big bruisers -- tigers, makos, blues, hammerheads and the common thresher -- still cruise offshore, and until a couple of years ago, Sampson regularly wowed the crowd at the White Marlin Open each August by bringing big tiger sharks to the scales.

"I knew a tiger was the best candidate to win," said Sampson. "But it got to the point that this was the only time we killed them, and we decided this was kind of silly."

The Ocean City Shark Tournament and the White Marlin Open have banned tiger sharks, which are nearly inedible, rather than allow them to be killed simply to win prize money.

Sampson also has banned sandbar sharks from his tournament because they are easily confused with the dusky shark, which is on the NMFS list of prohibited species.

But the challenge of catching and releasing sharks still pleases Sampson, even though the bulk of the charter business these days is focused on tuna.

"If I could only fish for one fish offshore, it would be shark," said Sampson. "If every time the phone rang, it wouldn't break my heart if it was someone who wanted a shark trip."

Clarification

The $2 rockfish permit was abolished June 1, rather than July 1, as reported last week. However, the cost of a bay fishing license for tidal waters will rise from $7 to $9.

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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