OCEAN CITY — Days after the Ocean City Mayor and Council fired off a letter last week opposing the designation of the Baltimore Canyon as the nation’s first Urban National Marine Sanctuary, a coalition of U.S Congressmen sent a letter of their own to a federal official who could ultimately make the decision.
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 announcement in October met with an immediate reaction from the resort’s area’s multi-million fishing industry, whose representatives fear a sanctuary designation would ultimately limit, restrict or 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.
Last Monday, after hearing a presentation from attorney Mark Cropper, who represents several marina owners, fishing captains and other stakeholders about the potential “devastating” effects of a sanctuary designation for the Baltimore Canyon, the council fired off a letter to its representatives in Annapolis including Gov. Larry Hogan urging them to formally oppose the designation. Just two days later, the coalition of U.S. Congressman including Andy Harris, who represents Maryland’s 1st District, penned a letter of its own to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan expressing serious concern with the proposal and calling into question its legality. Along with Harris, signing the letter Congressmen Tom MacArthur, Walter B. Jones, Frank LoBiondo, Lee Zeldin, Chris Smith and Roy Wittman.
The letter points out NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has not received sufficient federal funding to meet its statutory obligations for the sanctuaries in existence before even adding new sanctuaries like the Baltimore Canyon.
“It is irresponsible and possibly unlawful for the National Marine Fisheries Service to look into expanding sanctuaries when they are unable to fulfill their current statutory requirement,” the letter reads. “Any expansion of the national marine sanctuary system will inevitably lead to additional financial stresses upon the entire system.”
The letter to Sullivan, like the Mayor and Council’s own letter earlier last week, points out the purpose of the designation as stated is to protect deep sea coral habitat, but those corals in the canyons are already protected through other means.
“One of the main supporters of the Baltimore sanctuary designation, the National Aquarium of Baltimore, stated during a public meeting that protection for deep sea corals was a major driver of the designation nomination,” the letter reads. “The deep sea corals are already protected through an amendment to a fishery management plan developed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. The amendment prohibits all bottom trawling in the offshore canyons from Montauk down to Virginia.”
The letter to Sullivan from Harris and his colleagues also points out there are no official protections for recreational fishing in the sanctuary designation application, despite what National Aquarium staffers have guaranteed recreational and commercial fishermen.
“National Marine Sanctuaries do not contain any legal protections for the fishermen who have been fishing the waters surrounding sanctuaries for decades,” the letter reads. “The sanctuary management plan supersedes any existing regulations. Further, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act does not contain any provisions that sanctuaries must use science-based management. This would allow the sanctuary managers to prohibit fishing in sanctuaries without ever having to scientifically justify the fishing ban.”
The letter to Sullivan urges the NOAA administrator to carefully weigh the potentially devastating economic impacts before reaching a decision on the sanctuary designation for the Baltimore Canyon.
“We respectfully request that any federal policy changes are considered very carefully and with a specific focus on limiting disruptions to the traditional activities taking place in our waters,” the letter reads. “The waters surrounding the Baltimore, Hudson and Norfolk Canyons support a number of ocean industries that are key economic drivers including tourism, commercial and recreational fishing. For the reasons stated above, we express our serious concerns with the proposed nominations of the Hudson, Baltimore and Norfolk Canyons under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.”