Proposed Shark Rule Change Worries Local Industry

OCEAN CITY — A major rule change proposed for one species of shark with a blanket size limit increase for all species could effectively shut down a significant component of Ocean City’s multi-million recreational sportfishing industry.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) last week published a 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.

Amendment 5 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.

“How can you manage one fishery but shutting down another?” he said. “They’re going to shut us out of shark fishing if this goes through.”

According to Sampson, the issues with dusky sharks have been on the radar for several years since a stock assessment indicated numbers were down considerably. Dusky is a prohibited species for both recreational and commercial fishermen. For 12 years, it has been listed as a prohibited species with a zero take limit, yet their numbers appear to continue to decline. Sampson said there appears to be dramatic inconsistencies in the stock assessments and mortality attribution.

“I noticed they’re attributing a lot of the dusky mortality to recreational fishermen,” he said. “I just don’t see it. When you look at the landing reports, in one year you see 36 and the next year you see 3,000. It just doesn’t seem to add up.”

He suggested either the landings reports are inaccurate, likely due to the misidentification of dusky sharks on phone-in catch reports, for example, or fishery management groups have been negligent in enforcement.

While few would disagree with efforts to protect imperiled dusky sharks, the proposed rule change would increase the minimum keeper size for almost all species.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “They have to do something. They legally have to protect them and the environmental groups are putting pressure on them to take some action. I just don’t believe this blanket size limit change is the right answer.”

Sampson said with the prohibition on keeping any dusky shark regardless of size failing, NMFS is now exploring a blanket minimum size increase for all species targeted by recreational anglers.

“They can’t change the limits any more. Zero is zero,” Sampson said. “The only thing they can address is the misidentification. They’re claiming the dusky shark is being misidentified as other types of legal sharks, but the closest would be the black tip because they don’t always have black tips on their fins. Makos, spinners, hammerheads and threshers would not be easily misidentified.”

Sampson said the rule change, if adopted, could have serious ramifications on the local sportfishing industry.

“That’s going to shut down the recreational shark fishery,” he said. “That’s eight feet and there are very few caught that are eight feet in length.”

To illustrate the point, Sampson said 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 Delaware’s largest mako came in at 221 pounds. By comparison, a 96-inch thresher would weigh around 400 pounds and those fish are few and far between.

“They’re compelled to do something,” he said. “They’re looking to us for possible answers and for help on this. They need an alternative.”

To that end, Sampson has come up with a possible solution that would afford protection to the dusky sharks while allowing recreational anglers to catch and keep the most popular species targeted such as makos, threshers and hammerheads. Dusky sharks are brown and rather generic in shape and are generally lumped in with so many other sharks that they are often misidentified and misreported.

“A possible solution is allowing no ridgeback sharks to be taken,” he said. “The ridgebacks would have to be put back regardless of the size, except for maybe dogfish. Even with the shark in the water, or at night with a spotlight, the ridge is easily identifiable. That would eliminate the take of dusky sharks while still allowing most legal sharks to be caught.”

Sampson said he has informally suggested the ridgeback shark alternative and will likely make a formal recommendation at a special advisory committee meeting in January. The public comment period on the proposal ends Feb. 13.