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Vol 43 | 2018 Winter Issue | Jan 1, 2018

2017 Year in Review “Hunting and Fishing the Chesapeake" The Galley Chum Lines ASMFC Approves Cobia Plan Fish Stories Maryland Boaters Can Now Renew Their Vessels Online Maryland Sets 2018 Summer Flounder Season, Size and Creel Limits NOAA Sets Blueline Tilefish Regulations Recreational Black Sea Bass Fishery Closes Effective Jan. 1, 2018 Recreational Fishing Participation Increases Nearly 20% Over Past 10 Years Ship To Shore Thinking about buying a boat lift? Here's all you need to know. Issue Photos
Chum Lines

Article by Capt. Mark Sampson

Prior to 1993 there were no U.S. federal recreational shark fishing regulations, and as one can imagine, shark fishing to that point was like the wild west and many anglers found much more incentive to bring home everything and anything they caught than get involved in catch-and-release. Back then it was not unheard of for a boat to return with 4 to 6 big sharks on their deck, which they would hang up for photos and then dump at sea the next day.

Fortunately not as many recreational anglers were inclined to fish for sharks back then as there are now, so the impact on shark populations from this abuse was not quite as bad as it could have been. Unfortunately, a pretty strong commercial shark fishery had developed for both meat and fins, and like the recreational fishery, there were little to no commercial shark fishing restrictions either. Shark populations off our coast, and around the world for that matter, took a huge hit and suddenly the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which had at one time suggested that fishermen start targeting sharks which they classified as “underutilized species”, suddenly found themselves scrambling to reign-in fishing efforts by imposing shark fishing regulations on both recreational and commercial fishermen.

The first regulations went into effect in 1993 and as far as recreational anglers were concerned, they were simple and not very restrictive. Anglers were limited to four sharks per boat per day from the large coastal (sandbars, duskies, blacktips, etc.) and the pelagic groups (makos, blues, threshers, etc.) and five sharks per person per day from the small coastal group (Atlantic sharpnose, bonnethead, etc.). There were no minimum size limits on any. So for the most part fishermen could still just keep on doing what they had been doing all along, leaving shark populations with almost no additional conservation.

But as it turned out, while they were not overly burdensome to fishermen, those first regulations would turn out to be the foundation on which NMFS could build a more comprehensive shark management plan, and as we know - over the years they have done just that. Recreational shark fishing regulations have gone from overly simplistic to downright confusing, and it’s certainly understandable how some anglers might be somewhat bewildered by how intricate they’ve become. Complicated or not, as they say, “the rules is the rules” and believe it or not, in 2018 the rules are about to become even more complex! Knowing that some anglers are already fed-up with the current shark regulations, let me try and shed some light on how this whole thorny mess got going in the first place.

Right from the start, and still today, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for effective management of sharks has been the fact that so many anglers do not have the skills to properly identify the different species they’re likely to catch. Here in the mid-Atlantic there are about 14 different types of sharks caught with relative frequency. Some, such as the mako, hammerhead, blue and thresher are pretty identifiable by their somewhat unique morphological characteristics (physical appearance) while other sharks such as sandbars, duskies, blacktips, spinners, sharpnose, etc. are more generic in appearance and often confused. To be truly effective, a good shark management plan must take into account special conservation needs of each individual species because the biology, life history, habitat requirements, migration patterns, populations and everything else about each species is so different from one type of shark to another. Managing all sharks by one or two sets of rules, as was started in 1993, would be as effective as managing blue marlin under the same set of rules as black sea bass. It just won’t work for either fish or fisherman!

So the 1993 four shark per day “foundation” limit proved to be so ineffective as a conservation tool that it eventually transitioned to two per boat and finally one large shark per boat per day. The limit of five small coastal sharks per person also got weaned down to one small coastal shark per person. NMFS also elected to initiate and 54-inch minimum (fork length) size limit on pelagic and large coastal sharks.

In 1997 fisheries also recognized that while some shark populations were healthy enough to allow at least some harvest, certain species of sharks were either so overfished or so little was known about their numbers that they needed total protection altogether. With this in mind NMFS started a “Prohibited Species List” which has now grown to include 21 species of sharks that anglers may not keep at any time. Sharks from the prohibited list that are somewhat common catches off Delmarva include duskies, sand tigers, great whites, sandbars, longfin makos and angel sharks.

For a while, local shark anglers were able to slip into a rather familiar groove of knowing that they could take one large shark a day measuring at least 54-inches as long as it’s not on the prohibited list. Other than that there wasn’t too much in the way of regulations for anglers to remember. Then about a decade or so ago it was decided that in order to protect certain large coastal species of sharks in the inshore nursery and pupping areas, anglers should be prohibited from landing large coastal sharks until the middle of July. Since then local shark anglers have been limited to landing only makos, threshers, blue, sharpnose and dogfish sharks prior to July 15th. While the regulation hasn’t proven to be any huge burden for anglers to follow, it did become just “one more” in a growing list of regulations shark fishermen had to learn and remember to follow.

Anglers were able to coast along pretty well with those regulations until some issues with hammerheads popped up. It seemed that according to certain studies, catch statistics and stock assessments, populations of hammerheads had declined dramatically and overfishing was occurring. Whenever a species that is managed by NMFS is deemed to be overfished the agency is required by law to do something about it by coming up with a management plan that would reduce the mortality to a level that will allow the species to recover to a certain level within a specific time frame.

Although records showed that recreational shark fishermen were taking very few hammerheads (most where taken by commercial fishermen), by law the recreational catch still had to be reduced by a certain percentage. The NMFS didn’t wish to prevent anglers from landing hammerheads altogether so instead, they elected to try a two-pronged approach of increasing the minimum size limit to 78-inches (that’s a pretty big hammerhead!) and requiring that anglers who have a tuna, billfish or swordfish on-board may not land a hammerhead, or if a hammerhead is landed first, then anglers may not keep a tuna, billfish or swordfish.

While the latter part of the new hammerhead regulations might seem kind of wacky, there was actually some method behind their madness. The folks at the NMFS knew that a lot of the hammerheads being boated by recreational anglers were not ones that were being caught specifically by shark fishermen as much as they were being taken by anglers primarily targeting billfish, tuna or swordfish out in the deep waters beyond the Continental Shelf or in the canyons either during the day or at night. Since it was deemed that most anglers dong that type of fishing would likely prefer to have the opportunity to boat the other species rather than a single hammerhead, fisheries figured that if they put the “one-OR-the-other” provision in the regulations that most anglers would elect to release any hammerheads they caught, thereby facilitating the desired reduction in recreational landings of the species.
Then, just when it seemed as though the stack of sharks regulations couldn’t get much higher, along came some issues with dusky sharks that again had NMFS tasked with the responsibility of providing additional conservation to a specific species. Duskies are deemed to be severely overfished as a result of incidental (accidental) catches in the commercial and recreational fisheries and have been on the prohibited species list for over a decade, so they may not be fished for or harvested at anytime or by anyone. Supposedly too many dusky sharks are dying because they are not surviving the catch and release process, or in some cases as a result of anglers boating them because they either don’t know that duskies are a prohibited species or because they are misidentifying them as a legal species.

In response, this year NMFS initiated new regulations requiring all anglers who intend to fish for sharks to obtain a “shark endorsement” on their HMS Permit as well as require the mandatory use of circle hooks whenever someone is fishing with bait intended for sharks. It’s predicted that these two recreational regulations, when combined with a number of new commercial fishing regulations, will provide enough additional conservation to dusky sharks that it will eventually allow their populations to return to the desired levels.

Shark endorsement? Circle hooks? What the heck?! These new regulations went on the books back in April, but knowing that it might take anglers a little time to understand and prepare to comply with them, NMFS didn’t schedule the start date until January 1, 2018. For the first time new shark regulations have nothing to do with what anglers can and cannot keep as much as how they may or may not fish.

The “Shark Endorsement”

Most offshore fishermen should already be familiar with the federal regulation that requires anyone who wishes to fish for tuna, billfish or sharks in the EEZ (3-200 miles off coastline) to obtain a Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Permit. In 2018 this requirement will remain unchanged and as in years past recreational anglers will still have to choose whether to get an HMS “Angling” Category Permit if they have a strictly private boat, or an HMS “Charter/Headboat” Category Permit if they take passengers for hire. However, new in 2018 is the requirement that if a fisherman intends to fish for sharks, or they would like the opportunity to keep a shark they might accidentally catch, when they are applying online for their HMS Permit they will need to request a “shark endorsement” be applied to their permit. There will be no fee for the endorsement, however, the angler will be required to watch a short safe-handling and identification training video and then answer a few easy questions about sharks to confirm they paid attention to the video.

The training video is one tool NMFS will use to help anglers properly identify dusky sharks in hopes that such knowledge will minimize the chances that they will mistakenly boat and not release duskies that are accidentally caught. It’s important for every offshore angler to know that even if they intend never to fish for sharks, if they catch one while fishing for something else, and wish to keep it, they may not do so unless they have the shark endorsement on their HMS Permit. Having the endorsement will not require anglers to possess or use any special tackle or make changes in the gear they would normally use when they are targeting fish other than sharks, so there is no down-side to having the endorsement. However, those who do not have the endorsement will not be able to keep a shark at any time.

Circle Hooks

The other half of the new shark regulations is the requirement that anglers who are targeting sharks use non-offset, non-stainless steel circle hooks. Since circle hooks have been proven to provide fish that are caught and released the best chance for survival because they usually hook in the jaw rather than the gut, NMFS has determined that if recreational anglers use circle hooks when targeting sharks with bait (not lures or flies) there will be an increased chance that dusky and other species of sharks caught and released in the recreational fishery will survive. NMFS is hoping that the combined results of better educated fishermen along with the use of circle hooks result in an increased level of conservation for dusky sharks so that tighter regulations will not be needed later.

2018 Shark
Regulation Count
•One pelagic or large coastal shark per boat at 54-inches or larger fork length.
•Special hammerheads size limit of 78-inch minimum fork length.
•One small coastal shark per person.
•No large coastal sharks until July 15th.
•No hammerheads if a tuna, billfish, or swordfish has been boated.
•Shark endorsement on HMS Permit
•Circle hooks must be used when targeting sharks with bait.

So in 25-years recreational shark anglers have gone from zero restrictions to seven pretty substantial regulations that are sure to have more than just a few fishermen scratching their heads and wondering why do “they” have to make it so complicated just to catch a shark! While we’re on that note, I should point out that there are actually more than just seven, but some of them are not unique just to sharks and some are somewhat limited in where they apply. For instance:

•Just like tuna and billfish, a shark must not be brought into the boat before being released.

•Shark fishing is not allowed from Ocean City’s beaches.

•Sharks caught from Delaware beaches may not be brought out of the water prior to release.

•Sharks may only be taken using “authorized gear” which includes rod-and-reel or handlines. NO bow-fishing, free-gaffing or any other method of taking sharks is allowed.

•Sharks may be gutted at sea but must be brought in with the head, tail and fins naturally attached.

•Maryland anglers are required to report all shark landings by filling out a catch card and putting a catch tag on the shark before removing it from the boat or the boat from the water.

Yea, that’s a lot of regulations to keep track of, and it begs the question of whether or not NMFS is going a bit overboard in trying to manage sharks? The answer to that question brings me back to what I referenced at the start of this article when I wrote that “managing all sharks by one or two sets of rules as was done in 1993 would be as effective as managing blue marlin under the same set of rules with black sea bass – it just won’t work for either fish or fisherman!” Shark species are so diverse that, to truly get it right, fisheries would need to have a completely different set of regulations for every different species anglers might encounter. Imagine how bizarre that would be! Instead, to benefit fishermen, NMFS is trying to keep regulations generic when possible and then only break from the norm as necessary – as they did with hammerheads.

Over time, if anglers get better at identifying shark species NMFS might begin to initiate more species-specific management, which will be a bit of a double edged sword for fishermen as they will see more regulations, some of which might be more restrictive on some species, but they may also become more liberal for others. For instance; many anglers are probably unaware that the 54-inch fork length minimum size that anglers must abide by for large coastal and pelagic sharks came about because it was determined that 54-inches was the size at which a female sandbar shark became sexually mature. That size has nothing to do with makos, threshers, blacktips or any other shark that recreational anglers are likely to bring home for dinner. Sandbar sharks are no longer even allowed to be taken by recreational anglers, but that arbitrary measurement is still being used to determine if the other species can be retained or not. Maybe for some sharks that measurement should be larger, while for other species it should be lower. Either way it just goes to show how, despite the increasing complexity of our current shark regulations, there is still a need for improvement.

As our knowledge of the biology and life history of sharks increases, so will the challenge to properly manage all sharks in a way that balances a necessary level of conservation with anglers rights to participate in the fishery.

Capt. Mark Sampson is an outdoor writer and captain of the charter boat, “Fish Finder”, docked at the Ocean City Fishing Center.

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