Offshore Fishing Season Strong In Tough Economy

OCEAN CITY – Most of the resort area’s sport fishing fleet have long been pulled from the water or have headed south to warmer climates and winter seasons, providing a perfect time to reflect on what was a remarkable season and one of the best on record in recent years off the coast of Ocean City.

Despite the impact of a stalled economy, which hampered the offshore charter business to a large degree this summer, the 2009 season was one of the best ever with the number of billfish releases coming in at the second highest total in nearly three decades. Through late August and much of September, a vast body of white marlin set up shop off the coast of the resort, resulting in double-digit releases for many of the boats still making the effort.

When the dust settled, a total of 1,475 billfish were caught and released during the 2009 season, including 1,414 white marlin, 51 blue marlin and a handful of sailfish, spearfish and swordfish, according to the Ocean City Marlin Club’s final tallies based on 1,108 catch reports submitted during the season. The final billfish release count was second only to the 1,676 billfish releases reported in 2002 and the third highest total since 1980, when 1,476 billfish catches were reported.

Of course, the billfish catch-and-release totals are subject to a variety of factors, including the whims of Mother Nature and the relatively unpredictable nature of the highly migratory species, but the numbers for 2009 are remarkable nonetheless when viewed in an historic context. Only 17 times in the seven-plus decades since the Ocean City Marlin Club was formed has the total number of billfish caught during a single season topped the 1,000 mark, and only eight times during the same 70-plus years has the number of billfish released hit the magic number.

In 1956, 1,616 billfish catches were reported, of which 947 were released, and in 1968, 1,735 billfish were caught with 925 released, based on Marlin Club records. A big three-year run occurred from 1969 to 1971 when the number of billfish caught topped the 2,000 mark.

In 1969, for example, a record 2,507 billfish catches were reported resulting in 1,696 releases. After 1971, however, nearly 10 years went by before the number of billfish catches and releases topped the 1,000 mark when 1,476 were caught and 1,042 were released in 1980. During one dismal stretch in the mid 1980s, the number of billfish catches came in at under 200 for three straight years and the number of releases barely topped the 100 mark.

So what do all the figures mean for the White Marlin Capital of the World? Again, there is no rhyme or reason for the wide-ranging totals, but it appears, at least on the surface, the redoubled efforts at conservation could be paying dividends. When Atlantic white marlin population estimates reached historic lows, the species came under increased scrutiny in recent years and even flirted with an endangered species designation several years ago.

As a result, recreational anglers have adopted a stronger conservation ethic for white marlin and billfish in general, including an increased use of fish-friendly circle hooks and better release techniques, for example. Whether the sudden spike in catch-and-release figures off the coast of Ocean City this summer was an anomaly or the result of the increased conservation efforts is uncertain, but the latter certainly hasn’t hurt according to Marlin Club President Franky Pettolina.

“Without a doubt, circle hooks and a strong conservation ethic are playing a role,” he said. “Granted, this year we were fortunate that a large body of white marlin stayed close to Ocean City for most of August and September, but a majority of folks fishing for them have switched to circle hooks and that has to help. In addition, most people are taking the time to release the fish as quickly and cleanly as possible.”

It also appears the strong billfish off Ocean City this summer was the norm for the 2009 season in the mid-Atlantic and not the exception. Pettolina said similar near-record totals came out of other popular sport fishing destinations this summer.

“The most encouraging thing to me is that while we were experiencing the excellent marlin fishing here, the boys in New Jersey, Virginia Beach and Oregon Inlet were seeing the same kind of numbers above and below us,” he said. “To me, that says that the white marlin population is healthy. As recreational anglers, we are doing our part.”

The remarkable 2009 season was not limited to just billfish. The tuna bite was strong through much of the late August and September portion of the season as well.

“Another thing that impressed me this year is that the tuna numbers were up, both in size and quantity, when compared to the last few years,” said Pettolina.

The overall numbers for 2009 are even more impressive considering the effort offshore this year was largely reduced by the economy. The high price of charters and fuel, coupled with a decrease in disposal income for many sport fishing enthusiasts kept the local fleet idle for much of the season.

“Economic conditions kept a lot of the fleet at the dock more than usual,” he said. “What this says is that there could have been greater numbers put up, but people just needed to get out there and fish for them.”

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