Proposed Circle Hook Rule For Fishing Tourneys Delayed

OCEAN CITY – Federal fisheries officials this week announced
the required use of fish-friendly circle hooks in big offshore tournament’s
such as Ocean City’s White Marlin Open has been suspended for a year just four
months after the new rule was adopted.

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) officials last
year adopted new regulations requiring the use of circle hooks in Atlantic
billfish tournaments in an effort to curb mortality rates for the diminishing
species.

The circle hook requirement was a concession of sorts in a
much larger management plan for billfish, which at one time included a proposal
to ban all landings of white marlin for a period of five years beginning in
2007.

The new circle hook requirement for billfish tournaments
went into effect on Jan. 1, 2007. Now, just four months later, NMFS officials
have reversed the decision and have agreed to suspend the required use of
circle hooks until Jan. 1, 2008 in order to allow recreational sport fishermen
more time to grow accustomed to the new tackle.

“This final action is intended to increase post-release
survival of Atlantic billfish by improving long-term compliance with
recreational billfish tournament circle hook regulations,” the official final
rule from NMFS this week reads. “To accomplish this, this final action will
provide additional time for recreational billfish tournament anglers to become
more proficient with circle hooks and increase awareness among tournament
anglers of circle hook conservation benefits.”

It is widely believed the use of circle hooks decreases
mortality rates for released fish because they are more often set in the jaw or
mouth of the fish rather than in the stomach or other organs compared to
traditional J-hooks. However, many recreational anglers have resisted circle
hooks, particularly in big tournaments with big prize money at stake, because
of the perception there is a greater risk of missing a catch. U.S. commercial
long-liners have been required to use circle hooks since 2004 in an effort to
limit inadvertent catches of non-targeted fish.

Locally, offshore tournament officials have been keeping a
close eye on the NMFS’ ruling on circle hooks out of concern the new
requirement might keep some boats and anglers from entering the tournaments.
For example, White Marlin Open founder and director Jim Motsko has been playing
a waiting game for months while federal officials weighed the final decision of
the circle hooks.

“It put us in a bit of a tight spot because we’re sending
out our brochures and taking reservations for the tournament without knowing
what the final rule might be,” he said. “Now we know exactly what the rules
will be for this summer and we can now get the word out that nothing will
change for this tournament.”

Weeks ago, Motsko voiced concern the requirement for
circle hooks could reduce the size of the field for the White Marlin Open
because many boats and anglers were uncertain how the new rule would affect
their fishing in the tournament. However, Motsko is now confident he and his
staff can get the word out that the rule has been pushed back for another year.

“We still have another mailing to send out anyway, and
we’ll just adjust it to reflect this new decision,” he said. “It’s a little
late in the game for a rule change, but we’re confident we can get the word
out. We don’t expect this late decision to impact the number of boats we get
for the tournament.”

Motsko said NMFS’ decision to push the effective date back
for the required use of circle hooks made sense given concerns raised at the
various public hearings up and down the coast. A strong advocate for billfish
conservation, Motsko said he already uses circle hooks when fishing for marlin
and other billfish, which is why he has some mixed feelings about the decision
to move back the effective date.

“Overall, I’m happy with the decision,” he said. “This
will give people more time to get accustomed to the circle hooks and give them
more confidence in entering these tournaments down the road when they are more
comfortable with the tackle.”

The required use of circle hooks is just one of the
alternatives laid on the table last year aimed at reducing mortality rates for
white marlin and other Atlantic billfish. 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 altered the format for tournaments up and
down the east coast including the White Marlin Open. After considerable public
comment was collected at hearings from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine, NMFS backed
down from the proposal to prohibit all landings of Atlantic billfish, opting
instead for the less Draconian circle hook requirement.  

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