OCEAN CITY — Calling a potential designation of the offshore Baltimore Canyon as the nation’s first Urban National Marine Sanctuary potentially “devastating” to the multi-million dollar fishing industry, resort officials this week agreed to send a letter of opposition to state and federal representatives.
In October, National Aquarium officials announced they were seeking an Urban National Marine Sanctuary designation for the Baltimore Canyon, a vast 28-mile long and five-mile wide submarine canyon off the coast of Ocean City that lies at the center of the resort’s multi-million dollar fishing industry. According to the National Aquarium’s petition drive, a designation of the nation’s first Urban National Marine Sanctuary for the Baltimore Canyon “presents a unique opportunity to connect an urban population to the ecological treasure using cutting edge deep sea exploration technology.”
The National Aquarium’s announcement in October met with an immediate knee-jerk reaction from the resort’s area’s multi-million fishing industry, whose representatives fear a sanctuary designation would ultimately limit, restrict or perhaps prohibit recreational and commercial fishing in the canyon. During a meeting at the Ocean City Marlin Club late last month, aquarium officials assured fishing industry leaders the intent of the designation was not to impact fishing in the Baltimore Canyon, but could offer no assurances about potential changes in the uses allowed in the future.
To that end, the local fishing community has launched a grassroots effort to stop the petition from being submitted in the first place, and if it is submitted, to urge the Secretary of Commerce, under whose purview the designation would fall, to deny the sanctuary designation for the canyon. On Monday, attorney Mark Cropper, representing a coalition of marina owners, fishing captains and other stakeholders, made a presentation to the Mayor and Council urging them to fire off a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, State Senator Jim Mathias and Delegate Mary Beth Carozza to pull their collective resources to fight the proposed sanctuary designation for the Baltimore Canyon. Cropper pointed out the Baltimore Canyon to the north, along with the Poor Man’s Canyon in the middle and the Washington Canyon to the south were the staples of the resort’s vast recreational and commercial fishing industry.
“Probably 95 percent of the fishing out of this Inlet is between the Baltimore and Washington canyons,” he said. “You’re looking at a reduction of roughly one third. Should the Baltimore Canyon be designated as a marine sanctuary and the Regional Fishery Management Council proposes regulations accepted by the Secretary of Commerce that limits, restricts or prohibits fishing in the canyon, the available fishing areas most relied upon by the offshore fishing fleet will be diminished by one third, which would be devastating.”
Cropper told the council there is some urgency to rallying the troops in an effort to stop the petition drive. Once the petition is submitted, local influence on future changes in uses allowed in the canyon could wane.
“The petition will be filed by the end of this year,” he said. “Unless we can stop that from happening, it will be completely within the federal jurisdiction. Our resources to affect the outcome will be more limited and difficult to influence.”
Convincing the National Aquarium not to submit the petition for designation is paramount, according to Cropper.
“The one truism in all of this is, if the Baltimore Canyon is not designated, then we have nothing to worry about,” he said. “Even if they say there will be no limitations or restrictions on fishing, it is very easy to change that after the designation. It would be at the political whim of who is president or Secretary of Commerce at the time.”
Cropper said at the meeting at the Marlin Club late last month, National Aquarium officials when pressed assured everyone in attendance there were no planned limitations, restrictions or prohibitions on fishing in the canyon. However, on further questioning, when asked if they could guarantee fishing would not be limited, restricted or prohibited in the future, the answer was no. When pressed further, aquarium officials said they would move forward with the designation petition regardless of the local impact.
“The National Aquarium appears to be petitioning for this designation for fundraising and grant purposes without regard to the possible economic impact on the local communities,” he said. “In fact, the representatives of the aquarium we met with indicated that the aquarium intends to move forward with this petition regardless of the economic impact or position of the local interests.”
To that end, the initial strategy is to convince the aquarium not to submit the application, but beyond that, it could be difficult to convince federal officials of the importance of the canyon to the local economy.
“If we can convince the National Aquarium not to file the petition, that would be the best of all worlds,” said Cropper. “If it is filed, we must do everything in our power to prevent the Secretary of Commerce from making the designation. If that fails, we’re in real trouble. Unfortunately, I don’t know how much leverage we have. With the help of the Mayor and Council, the County Commissioners, Senator Mathias, Delegate Carozza and Governor Hogan, maybe we can stop this.”
Cropper explained the intent of the designation as defined by the petition, which has about 1,700 signatures of support as of Tuesday on the aquarium’s website, is “to present a unique opportunity to connect an urban population to the ecological treasure using cutting edge deep sea exploration technology.”
“In addition to protection from man-made threats, this potential designation will make this area the first Urban National Marine Sanctuary, offering a unique opportunity for the people of Baltimore City to connect and engage with the deep sea,” the petition reads. “Part of our proposal includes working with innovative companies to bring discoveries from researchers in the canyon back to local scientists, students, and institutions through the use of digital technology. This canyon offers endless opportunities for the educational use of GIS mapping, remote operating vehicles, SONAR equipment and so much more.”
However, Cropper further explained those uses as described are already permissible, and even encouraged, without the rather onerous sanctuary designation.
“Everything they describe in this they can do already without the designation,” he said. “It’s all about money. They can generate more money for the aquarium and there is also federal grant money available.”
For his part, Mathias has been closely in tune with the potential designation from the beginning and met with local fishing industry leaders quickly after the aquarium announced the petition effort. Mathias also attended the meeting at the Marlin Club in November, and while aquarium officials made assurances about not imposing limitations of fishing in the canyon, he voiced concern about possible changes in the regulations in the future.
“The road to heck is paved with good intentions, but good intentions can change down the road,” he said. “Not only does this put our economic foundation at risk, I think this strikes at the very heart of what we do here. I’ve had experiences with sanctuaries and it has not been good.”
Mathias said during several conversations with local stakeholders, the concerns have been consistent and palpable.
“To the person, they are deeply concerned,” he said. “Some things are better stopped before they start and that’s the strategy with this. Your letter will be crucial and it’s also critical that we reach out to our federal delegation.”
Mathias referenced former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who made the national aquarium a centerpiece of his revitalization of the downtown area in Baltimore. Mathias said the irony of that very aquarium now pushing for a designation that could ultimately damage Ocean City that Schaefer loved so much was not lost on him.
“I’m certain if he knew this was in any way, shape or form putting Ocean City at risk, he’d be standing right here beside me,” he said. “He wouldn’t be going for it, Gov. Hogan isn’t going for it and I’m not going for it.”
After considerable discussion, Councilman Wayne Hartman made a motion to forward a strong letter in opposition be forwarded to the various representatives with the signatures of the entire council and not just Mayor Rick Meehan. The Mayor and Council voted unanimously to send the strongly worded letter immediately with the aquarium’s petition filing looming at the end of the month.
“It has been brought to the attention of the Mayor and Council of Ocean City that the National Aquarium in Baltimore intends to file a petition with the Department of Commerce of the United States to have the Baltimore Canyon designated as a Marine Sanctuary pursuant to the National Marine Sanctuaries Act,” the letter reads. “This letter is intended to express the complete and unconditional opposition of Ocean City to this effort.”
According to the letter, Ocean City is home to no less than seven active marinas that cater to roughly 1,500 boats during the summer season. Including the boats not moored at the marinas, up to 3,000 boats depart the Ocean City Inlet for offshore fishing on a regular basis. Roughly 150 employees work at those marinas, although that figure is likely miniscule compared to the thousands of others who work in fishing-related industries.
Ocean City’s marinas host at least 12 offshore fishing tournaments annually with a combined purse of over $8 million. It is estimated that offshore fishing contributes in excess of $100 million to the local economy annually.
“Therefore, any effort that could threaten the ability to continue generating this volume of revenue and jobs is something that Ocean City must and will oppose,” the letter reads.
The letter urges the resort’s representatives in Annapolis along with Hogan to quickly urge the aquarium not to file the petition as planned.
“The town of Ocean City earned the title ‘White Marlin Capital of the World’ in 1939 and has retained that distinction due to the impressive offshore experiences since the Inlet was created in 1933,” the letter reads. “The only way to guarantee that regulations will not be adopted that could limit, restrict or prohibit fishing within the Baltimore Canyon is to either prevent the petition from being filed or ensure that it is ultimately denied by the Secretary of Commerce. Considering the very possible adverse impact to Ocean City’s economy, please utilize all available resources to prevent this designation from occurring.”