Compromise Sought Over Proposed Shark Restrictions

OCEAN CITY — The public will have a chance next week to weigh in on a drastic rule change proposed last fall by a federal fisheries management agency aimed at protecting one type of shark with a blanket size limit increase for all species.

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.

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. 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.

According to Sampson, the issues with dusky sharks have been on the radar for several years since a stock assessment indicated their numbers were down considerably. Dusky is a prohibited species for both recreational and commercial fishermen. For 12 years, they have 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. He said at a fisheries advisory council meeting on the issue earlier this month, NMFS officials acknowledged their catch data for dusky sharks appeared to be flawed.

“We’re convinced the catch reports are not accurate and NMFS has pretty much said the same thing,” he said this week. “They know the data has a high level of uncertainty, but that’s all they have and that’s what they have to go with.”

Sampson said NMFS is under pressure from conservation and advocacy groups to protect the threatened dusky sharks. As a result, the blanket minimum size increase is now on the table and threatens to shut down the entire shark fishery off the coast of the resort and up and down the coast and along the Gulf of Mexico.

“They’ve all but said they have to propose something,” said Sampson. “They’ve said this is the best thing they can come up with based on the hand they’ve been dealt.”

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 for example. 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.

Sampson said he believes NMFS floated the drastic 96-inch size limit increase somewhat for its shock value and to prove to advocacy groups the agency is taking their demands seriously, although he believes the door remains open for an alternative or compromise.

“I’d be very surprised if they implemented the 96-inch minimum size,” he said. “I think there will be something else, a better alternative.”

To that end, Sampson has come up with an alternative plan that appeared to get some traction during the advisory council meeting earlier this month. 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. However, dusky sharks are also part of a larger group of species informally known as ridgeback sharks. They have an easily recognizable ridge down the center of their back from the first dorsal fin to the second dorsal fin. Dusky sharks, sandbar sharks, tigers and dogfish, for example, are species that fit into the category.

The legal species most targeted by recreational anglers, including makos, threshers, hammerheads and blue sharks, for example, have smooth backs and are easily discernible from their ridgeback brethren.

Sampson has entered a proposal allowing no ridgeback sharks to be taken, while allowing popular smooth-back species, such as mako, to be taken. He has already pitched the idea to NMFS and will do so again during a meeting and presentation at the Ocean Pines Library next Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 5 p.m. The public comment period on the proposed amendment closes on Feb. 13.