This weekend is perhaps the peak of tuna madness in the waters of the Atlantic off Ocean City, as the annual tuna tournament draws more than 500 anglers and 100 boats for three days of competition for the heaviest fish brought to the scales, the greatest total poundage and the most caught and released.
But while a brisk breeze snapped the catch or release pennants flying from the outriggers of the sportfishermen tied up at the Ocean City Fishing Center on Friday, there was an air of concern among anglers along the docks.
Tuna has become the prime target of many fishermen who go down the ocean through the long, hot summer and run offshore in big, fast boats -- and some anglers are wondering whether the National Marine Fisheries Service is preparing to further restrict the fishery.
Effective June 1, NMFS instituted a daily limit of three yellowfin tuna per angler, a limit many charter captains and recreational anglers feel is adequate.
"I have no problem with the three fish," said Jeff Atwell of Baltimore, who fishes for pleasure aboard Press Time and pays for it by working for Cavanaugh Press. "But I do worry about NMFS trying to micro-manage all the fish that are out there."
Bigeye, bluefin and yellowfin tuna all are caught off Ocean City each summer, but catching a bigeye usually is coincidental and bluefin already are tightly regulated, with three per boat allowed until July 25 and one per boat afterward.
Yellowfin have become the staple that carries fishermen through June and July, before marlin and other billfish move into the offshore canyons toward the end of the summer.
Under its new Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan, the federal agency also has readdressed catch limits for sharks and billfish. But fishermen and fishermen's organizations are not convinced the changes in yellowfin regulations are justified.
The Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association has joined with the Recreational Fishing Alliance and has filed suit against NMFS, challenging the management plan.
MSSA president Bill Windley said late last week the plan "shows a total disregard for scientific evidence" and "demonstrates the commercial [fishing] bias which pervades NMFS."
NMFS spokesman Scott Smullen said the "whole idea of the management plan is a precautionary approach" that will help reduce commercial and recreational catch rates to 1992 levels.
"Yellowfin are fully exploited or perhaps even overfished," said Smullen, "and the three-fish limit is the most reasonable alternative.
"It allows anglers to pursue his or her passion, but also affords the yellowfin population a chance to rebuild."
However, while recreational and charter-boat catches of yellowfin are limited, the commercial fisheries' catch quota remains unchanged. NMFS will restrict the commercial catch, Smullen said, by capping the number of fishermen who can fish purse seines or long lines.
"I fear they [NMFS] are targeting private and charter-boat fishermen," Atwell said as he cleaned up Press Time and sent a tuna to the scales. "Everyone here polices themselves very well, and no one takes more than they need."
Scott Waltmeyer fishes the East Coast year-round aboard the charter boat Waterdog, following tuna and billfish as they migrate. He, too, is among those concerned that the yellowfin regulations may tighten over the next few years, just as bluefin regulations have.
"I wouldn't want to see that happen with yellowfin," Waltmeyer said as he prepared baits for yesterday's fishing. "But what they have -- three fish per man -- is fine. We usually cut our people off at two, anyway.
"If they [NMFS] do anything, they ought to change the [minimum] size limit. Twenty-seven inches is nothing. We ought to leave the babies alone."
"The government changing the regulations to three per day gives them a foot in the door," said Rose Stivers, who seven years ago quit an administrative job with the National Institutes of Health, moved to the beach and opened Rose's Fish Cleaning Service.
"It opens the way to more changes next year or later, just like with bluefin."