OCEAN CITY — Better identification and more accurate statistics would be a better alternative to protecting the dusky shark population than an umbrella catch size limit increase for all species of sharks caught off the coast of Ocean City, according to many area anglers.
That was the opinion and common theme of several other suggestions to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) representatives Wednesday at a public hearing in Ocean Pines over the service’s controversial “Amendment 5” to the Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan.
Commercial and recreational fishers turned out in strong numbers Wednesday to protest the amendment, which would set a new 96-inch, or eight-foot, minimum keeper size limit for all sharks caught off the coast. The current limit for sharks that are landed near Ocean City like the mako, thresher, hammerhead, and blue shark is 54 inches.
The goal of the limit, along with other measures NMFS is considering, is to protect dusky sharks, which continue to see an alleged population drop despite being a prohibited species. According to NMFS data, dusky sharks are at a critical population level. However, anglers weren’t subtle when it came to voicing their opinion on the data.
“It’s all guesses and supposes,” said Merrill Campbell of Southern Connections Seafood.
Campbell and several other recreational and commercials fishers loudly questioned the numbers used by NMFS, which were mostly estimates. NMFS Highly Migratory Species management Division Branch Chief Karyl Brewster-Geisz defended the data, pointing out that the service has to use extrapolated numbers because dusky sharks can’t legally be caught and almost never turn up at the dock.
Instead, NMFS relies on a combination of observer reports and commercial fishing boat log books to track dusky shark interactions and to make an estimate on how many are being harvested.
“They’re only questioning the dusky sharks because they don’t like the fact that it’s showing a two-thirds reduction needed in fishing mortality,” she said.
Several anglers argued that the problem might not entirely be with the formula but is at least in part due to fishing boats misidentifying catches in their logbooks as dusky sharks when the actual fish was probably some other species.
“Obviously, shark identification is a huge issue,” said Mark Sampson of Fish Finder Adventures. “It always has been from the very beginning.”
Sampson compared good data to a “well-tuned radar.” Without the right statistics, he said, NMFS is just blind-firing with a universal shark catch size increase and a drastic one at that.
Campbell agreed, saying, “The 96 inches size seems ridiculous to me … you use the science when you want to use the science.”
Arguments over the formulas used weren’t providing solutions to the problem, responded Brewster-Geisz.
“You think the science is flawed? Fine, you think the science is flawed,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do about that. Tell me that you can change how you fish and it will make a good difference.”
NMFS isn’t looking to ruin the commercial fishing industry or assault recreational fishers, added Brewster-Geisz. But their numbers suggest that the dusky shark is in trouble and something has to be done.
“We don’t like this. We know we’re affecting people livelihoods. We want ideas,” she said.
Sampson suggested a ban on all ridgeback sharks, a family which encompasses the dusky shark.
“If it’s a ridgeback, it’s got to go back,” he said.
Otherwise, the current proposal on the table will cripple recreational shark tourneys.
“It’s going to have a huge impact on shark tournaments … It’ll put an end to the most part to recreational shark tournaments,” he said.
However, despite Brewster-Geisz defending the data, anglers repeatedly suggested that the real problem is misidentifying all brown sharks as dusky sharks in log books and that the first step is improved education.
“You use the argument that we have to work with the best available science so don’t talk to you about numbers because this is the best we’ve got,” said Sampson. “That’s fine, that’ll shut us up. But the resource is hurting because of it.”
Being able to identify shark species should be incorporated into the fishing permit process in some way, advised Sampson. Many anglers agreed and also pushed for identification charts to be mandatory on boats.
“I really think there needs to be education there on the boat,” said John Martin of Martin Fish Company.
Whether the suggestions made by anglers will deter NMFS should be evident soon. The period for public comments closes Feb. 12. There will be one more Webinar conference call discussion and one more public hearing in Houston on Feb.5 and Feb. 7, respectively. More information is available at www.nmfs.noaa.gov