OCEAN CITY — Commercial fishermen in Worcester County were dealt another tough blow late yesterday when the State Senate approved a bill aimed at prohibiting the possession or distribution of shark fins, a by-product of the shark-fishing industry out of the West Ocean City harbor.
Earlier during the current General Assembly session, a dozen Maryland senators introduced a bill that would ban the possession or distribution of shark fins in an effort to curb the practice of shark-finning, or the cutting off of a shark’s fin at sea while the fish is still alive and discarding the creature to perish in the ocean. Shark fins are considered a delicacy in many Asian countries as the key ingredient, obviously, in the popular shark fin soup.
The legislation introduced in the General Assembly earlier this year and passed by the Senate on third reader yesterday, prohibits the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins in Maryland. A cross-filed bill on the House side has not yet come up for a vote.
While few would argue with the intent of the legislation, many in the state’s commercial and recreational fisheries warn the bill as written will have the unintended side effect of harming legitimate, conservation-minded anglers.
Shark fishing is a staple of the commercial industry operating out of the West Ocean City harbor and thousands upon thousands of pounds of shark meat are brought into the harbor each year for the sale and distribution of the meat. Naturally, the shark fins are often sold as a bi-product of that industry carried out by fully licensed and legitimate commercial anglers heavily scrutinized under state and federal regulations. Shark-finning is already illegal in the U.S., but legitimate commercial fishermen are allowed to sell the fins of the sharks they harvest for their meat.
The bill approved by the Senate yesterday changes that and further hampers a legitimate commercial fishery in West Ocean City.
Senator Jim Mathias battled hard along with Senator Richard Colburn to get amendments attached to the bill that would hold harmless legitimate, hard-working commercial and recreational fishermen, but the amendments were rejected yesterday and the bill passed as written.
“I thought we were getting somewhere arguing on behalf of our commercial and charter fishermen, but the bill is coming up for third reader and our amendments have been rejected,” he said. “We were trying to hold harmless the commercial and recreational fishermen, but its heading toward passage. I don’t know what else to say. I did everything I could.”
Mathias said the bill will likely hamper the commercial fishing industry.
“That commercial harbor in West Ocean City generates a million-plus pounds of shark each year, all of which is permitted and legitimate, and we’re working hard to protect that important industry. It’s part of our legacy,” he said. “I’m trying to preserve jobs and create jobs for our hardworking guys over there.”
Mathias said yesterday the bill’s intent is rooted in conservation, but the legislation targets the wrong element of the problem.
“Almost all of the shark-finning activity is international,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the piracy goes on in international waters. That’s where the real tragedy is in this, not with our commercial guys in West Ocean City.”
Captain Mark Sampson, founder and director of the Ocean City Shark Tournament and resident shark expert, agreed the bill has the unintended side-effect of compromising the commercial industry.
“The commercial guys legitimately catching sharks for meat are not part of the problem, but this bill will affect them the most,” he said. “The problem is with the shark-finning outlaws. This is a state law, not a federal law, so this is just about what is going on off the coast of Ocean City. Those guys are following the rules, but they’re going to get hurt by the unintended consequences of this. Everybody agrees shark-finning is a bad thing, but this doesn’t really address that. This only affects legitimate fishermen in Maryland.”
Sampson said the lineup of the bill’s advocates, many of whom have a larger agenda on shark fishing, raised red flags for him when he first heard about the bill.
“I’m always for anything that conserves sharks, but I’m very leery about this because of some of the players involved,” he said. “Frankly, I hope it doesn’t go through. Some of these groups have well documented ulterior motives to end shark fishing and even if this goes through with amendments, it could be a foot in the door for them.”
Sampson said state lawmakers supporting the bill might have been sold a false bill of goods.
“They’re selling this as something that is going to help with the problem of shark-finning, but we already have federal laws on shark-finning,” he said. “We have regulations and quota systems and federal laws in place and those guys follow them. They have to. This is still hurting those guys, but it is not helping sharks.”
Sampson added, “They might feel like they’ve scored one for shark conservation, but in reality, they’re only hurting honest fishermen and helping drive the price of shark fins up even higher by eliminating some of the legitimate supply.”