OCEAN CITY — On the same day the National Aquarium announced it was seeking an Urban National Marine Sanctuary designation for the Baltimore Canyon off the coast of Ocean City, aquarium officials attempted to reassure the sportfishing community a successful designation would not impact the fertile fishing grounds.
When the National Aquarium announced on Monday it was seeking the nation’s first Urban National Marine Sanctuary designation for the Baltimore Canyon off the coast of Ocean City, the knee-jerk reaction from the resort’s sportfishing community was fear of gradually losing more and more of the heart of the multi-million fishing industry. The overriding fear, and there is precedent for it, is that once the federal government gets its foot in the door, more and more regulations would be forthcoming and access to the canyon for recreational and commercial fisherman would be gradually chipped away.
However, National Aquarium officials later on Monday attempted to allay those fears. According to spokesperson Corrine Weaver, the National Aquarium is keenly aware of the importance of the recreational and commercial fisheries in the Baltimore Canyon and seeking an Urban National Marine Sanctuary designation would not impact those industries.
“Our recommendation for the protection of the Baltimore Canyon and surrounding waters does not call for the exclusion of the canyon area from commercial fishing or recreational areas,” she said. “The 15 sites already designated as National Marine Sanctuaries are frequently exceptional areas for sportfishing, diving, boating and other recreational activities. Additionally, commercial fishing thrives in these areas, which are ripe for private-sector investment and public partnerships and already support more than $4 billion annually in marine-related economies.”
Weaver said fishing and other current activities in the Baltimore Canyon would not be curtailed, but rather encouraged if the National Marine Sanctuary designation is successful.
“The Baltimore Canyon supports a wide variety of fish populations, which are both economically and recreationally important and presents exceptional opportunities for sportfishing, diving, boating and other activities, bringing in millions of dollars to Maryland’s economy annually,” she said. “These and other uses, in keeping with ecologically-friendly practices, will be not only allowed but encouraged.”
What will not be allowed, should the Baltimore Canyon earn the designation, is offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, for example. The federal government had included a vast section of ocean off the mid-Atlantic coast as a potential lease area for private sector offshore drilling, but backed off that proposal last year.
“We will be recommending restriction of offshore exploration of minerals, oil and gas with sanctuary boundaries, as these activities directly threaten the deep ocean ecosystems that make Baltimore Canyon so valuable,” she said. “Ultimately, the final management plan will be created by NOAA’s Sanctuaries Office and a diverse group of stakeholders with opportunities for public input once the nomination has been accepted.”
While the resort sportfishing community was somewhat taken aback with the National Aquarium’s announcement on Monday, it certainly wasn’t blindsided. A handful of representatives from the resort’s sportfishing community, including White Marlin Open founder and director Jim Motsko and well-known charterboat captain Monty Hawkins, had a cursory meeting with National Aquarium officials and Sen. Jim Mathias in advance of the announcement, and while they were assured fishing in the canyon would not be affected, there is no written provision in the proposal expressly guaranteeing access to the canyon would not be limited somehow in the future.
“We already had a meeting with the National Aquarium folks even before they announced the decision to seek a national marine sanctuary designation for the Baltimore Canyon,” said Motsko on Monday. “They gave us assurances fishing would not only be allowed, but would be encouraged. That’s all well and good, but we’re seeking something in writing. We need a provision for that right from the get-go.”
Motsko said while he had no reason to believe aquarium officials were somehow disingenuous when they assured local stakeholders fishing would be protected, he did voice concern it could be just lip service and pushed for a provision in writing.
“My thought is, unless you put a provision that will allow fishing to continue right from the start, it could get taken away by degrees over time,” he said. “Personally, I’m not going to moan and groan over this as long as there is a provision in there that allows fishing. Once the government starts taking things, they’ll do what they want unless there is something in writing. We just want it to be known up front.”
Motsko said representatives from the local sportfishing community will meet again with National Aquarium officials next month and plan to reiterate their position on a formal provision in writing.
“We want to make sure there is a provision to continue to allow fishing in this from the start,” he said. “It would be catastrophic for people along the east coast if fishing was not allowed in these canyons. That’s what we’re going to drive home at this next meeting.”
Hawkins, who operates the Morning Star and has been working offshore waters for decades, penned a letter to legislators after the recent meeting with aquarium officials.
“What really irks me is the time and energy – the money – spent on a strategy that, from its outset, accepts defeat. We’re going to lose the Mid-Atlantic. Let’s see if we can save a teeny-tiny piece. If all the big money, (and big money, hired gun, “grass roots” consulting firms) remain focused on preserving scoured-bottom reef foundations — rocks scraped-bare by decades of stern-towed fishing gear impacts; our once fantastic marine production shall continue to be replaced by a greener and greener Mid-Atlantic, with less and less fisheries production,” Hawkins wrote. “Because we’ll never win prevails in marine restoration, our fishing economy withers. Everyone and everything will benefit from true marine restoration. Sanctuaries, on the other hand, make a few computers happy and result in bonuses for ‘[grass roots’ firms, all while factually benefiting an infinitely small part of the sea. Please – I beg you all – please adopt a Churchillian attitude for marine restoration. From streams & rivers, the critical biofiltration of our missing oyster reefs and sea grass bed production, to missing marine reefs known only to a precious few — our large marine ecosystem demands repair in every aspect. We must not give up. We must never give in.”