NMFS Considers Pushing Back Circle Hook Mandate

OCEAN CITY – The required use of fish-friendly circle
hooks in big offshore tournaments such as the annual White Marlin Open in Ocean
City could be suspended for a year while National Marine Fisheries Service
(NMFS) officials reconsider the federal regulations that went into effect on
Jan. 1.

NMFS officials
last year adopted new regulations requiring the use of circle hooks in Atlantic
billfish tournaments such as the White Marlin Open in an effort to curb
mortality rates for the diminishing species. The circle hook requirement was a
concession of sorts in a larger management plan for billfish which included at
one time a proposal to ban all landings of white marlin for five years beginning
in 2007.

NMFS officials
last year released a series of preferred alternatives to address the documented
over-fishing of white marlin and other billfish in the recreational sector,
particularly in tournaments. The most alarming proposal on the table would have
made the Atlantic white marlin a catch-and-release-only fishery for five years
beginning in 2007, which, if approved, would have dramatically changed the
format for tournaments up and down the East Coast including the White Marlin
Open.

After considerable
public comment and an extensive letter-writing campaign, NMFS backed down from
the proposal to prohibit all landings of white marlin and other billfish,
opting instead to implement less drastic measures including the circle hook
requirement. Now, less than three months into the new regulations, NMFS
officials recently announced they are considering pushing back the circle hook
requirement for a year in order to allow recreational anglers more time to get
accustomed to using the different tackle.

The public
comment period on the new regulations has been pushed back in order to provide
interested parties the opportunity to weigh in on the circle hook issue. Public
hearings are being held from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine with a local hearing
scheduled for next Tuesday, March 27, at the Worcester County Library in Snow
Hill at 7 p.m. Based on the input collected during those hearings, NMFS will
make a final decision on whether or not to postpone the circle hook regulation
for another year.

White Marlin
Open founder and director Jim Motsko has been following the issue closely and
this week had a conference call with NMFS leaders and the directors of several
of the other big billfish tournaments along the East Coast to discuss the
merits of suspending the circle hook requirement. While no decision came out of
that conference call, most involved agreed it is probably a good idea to push
the new regulation back for a year.

“The overall
feeling of most of the directors is that this should wait another year,” he
said. “I don’t think anybody discounts the positive effects of circle hooks,
but most feel it would be in everybody’s best interest to wait a year in order
to allow anglers to get used to using them.”

Motsko said the
timeline for the decision-making process puts the White Marlin Open and similar
tournaments in a tough situation. Many captains and anglers used to fishing in
the tournaments may decide not to this year if circle hooks are required.

“This could
cause some boats to decide not to fish in the tournament this year,” he said.
“Right now, the law is still in effect, but they are considering pushing it
back for a year. Everybody is in a wait-and-see mode right now. This could have
a negative impact on the number of boats we get for the Open.”

Regardless of
NMFS’ final decision, the required use of circle hooks will be good for the
billfish, according to Motsko.

“If
the rule stands, we’ll be ready to go,” he said. “If they push it back for a
year, we’ll adjust and adapt. In either case, it’s good news for the fish …” 

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