Feds Rule Against Major Rule Change For Sharks

OCEAN CITY — The local fishing community breathed a collective sigh of relief this week when federal fisheries officials decided to drop a rather drastic rule change for sharks that could have effectively shut down a significant component of Ocean City’s multi-million dollar fishing industry.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in November published a rather dubious “Amendment 5” to the Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan that would, if adopted, create a new 96-inch, or eight-foot, minimum keeper size limit for all sharks caught off the coast of the resort including the popular makos, threshers, hammerheads and blue sharks that are staples of the resort’s sportfishing industry. The proposed rule change is aimed at affording greater protections to dusky sharks, which have been on NMFS’ prohibited species list since 2002 but have still allegedly seen their population figures dip to critical levels.

In response, NMFS officials published Amendment 5, which would nearly double the minimum size limit for as many as 12 legal shark species from the current 54 inches to 96 inches, or eight feet. According to Captain Mark Sampson, a charter captain and local expert on all things related to sharks, the rule change could effectively shut down a major staple of the early offshore fishing season in Ocean City and up and down the east coast.

After a lengthy public comment period that culminated with highly attended open meeting up and down the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico, including one at the Ocean Pines Library in early February, NMFS officials this week announced they had reconsidered the proposed amendment to nearly double the minimum keeper size for most legal shark species, and opted instead to pursue a different course of action to protect the threatened dusky sharks, although the nature of the new approach has not been revealed. NMFS officials announced the decision on Thursday.

“After reviewing all of the comments received, we are not planning to proceed at this time with the dusky shark measures as proposed,” the NMFS statement reads. “We will address the dusky shark overfishing and rebuilding plan in a proposed separate action.”

Instead, NMFS announced it would take a closer look at the science and data collection that was the catalyst for the proposed change in the first place. The federal fisheries agency also said it would take a broader look at conservation efforts for all shark species.

“Addressing the dusky shark management measures in a subsequent and proposed separate action will allow us to conduct additional analyses, explore different approaches and fully consider and address public comments while also allowing us to move forward with management measures necessary to end overfishing and rebuild other shark stocks,” the statement reads.

The news was quickly met with relief and satisfaction in the resort’s fishing community in general, and the Ocean City Shark Tournament specifically. The shark tournament is held each June based out of the Ocean City Fishing Center and is a staple of the resort’s summer-long tournament season. In addition, the proposed rule change could have greatly curtailed one of the cornerstones of the day in, day out charter fishing industry.

“The National Marine Fisheries has decided not to proceed with the proposed restrictions to shark fishing that were intended to boost dusky shark populations,” the Ocean City Shark Tournament statement reads. “This means that the proposed eight-foot minimum for mako, blue and thresher sharks will not be imposed for the 2013 fishing season.”

The Ocean City Shark Tournament does not target dusky sharks and their ridgeback brethren, but the increased minimum keeper size for other species targeted in the event, including makos, hammerheads and threshers, for example, could have greatly impacted the annual tournament. Instead, it will be business as usual for the most part this summer.

“This is great news for commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and tournament participants,” it reads. With this remaining unchanged from last year, the shark tournament will use the same minimum length requirements as last year, which have been more conservative than federal minimums for a long time.”

NMFS remains under pressure from advocacy groups to do something to protect dusky sharks. As a result, the blanket minimum size increase proposed threatened to shut down the entire shark fishery off the coast of the resort and up and down the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Raising the minimum size on all species of shark could effectively curtail all shark fishing off the coast including staples such as makos, hammerheads and threshers.

To illustrate the point, Sampson pointed out a 96-inch, or eight-foot, mako would weigh in at around 350 pounds. Last year, the largest mako caught in Maryland weighed 280 pounds, while the largest in Delaware came in at 221 pounds. By comparison, an eight-foot thresher would weigh about 400 pounds and those fish are few and far between.

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