Some fishermen are relieved Baltimore Canyon is not being considered as a national marine sanctuary, saying that designation could have restricted fishing in the rich area about 73 miles southeast of the Delaware Bay.
“It’s in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and that is what has always been a concern for us as users of the area,” said John Depersenaire, fisheries researcher at the Recreation Fishing Alliance in New Gretna. “It says unlawful acts include injuring or harming any sanctuary resource.”
The sanctuary program is set up to protect resources, said Reed Bohne, regional director of the sanctuary program for the Northeast and Great Lakes for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But when it comes to fish stocks, sanctuaries mainly rely on regional fishery councils to do the protecting — in this case the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, he said.
The same law cited by Depersenaire also specifies that regulations related to fishing are to be prepared by the appropriate regional council, said Bohne.
And what the council proposes shall be accepted and issued by the secretary of commerce, who designates sanctuaries, he said.
“All the sanctuaries allow commercial and recreational fishing, and maybe there is about 2 percent of (the area of) all 13 sanctuaries where there is some reserve set aside,” said Bohne.
In fact, the sanctuaries hold their own recreational fishing tournaments, Bohne said.
On Feb. 1, the National Aquarium in Baltimore withdrew its nomination of the canyon, saying it did not believe the timing was right. That set off concern among environmentalists that politics had killed the canyon’s chances, with the aquarium bowing to pressure from the Trump administration.
The underwater canyon holds deep-sea corals and pools of bubbling methane gas, known as “seeps,” that create a nutrient-rich biodiversity hot spot and attract many species of fish and whales, along with other animals.
The 149-square-mile area would have been protected from many kinds of exploitation, such as oil and gas exploration, had the nomination gone forward and the canyon passed the years-long dedication process.
It also would have become a teaching resource for public schools and colleges in the Baltimore area.
Sanctuary regulations in eight of the 13 existing sanctuaries do not address fishing at all, Bohne said, but leave oversight of that to the area’s regional fishery council. Those that do address it mainly cover the type of gear to be used, he said.
Fisheries in Baltimore Canyon are now managed by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, along with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. They already restricted the use of some gear in the Baltimore Canyon.
But fishermen remain skeptical.
Depersenaire said Baltimore Canyon is a popular fishing area for offshore fishing for tuna, marlin, swordfish, tilefish — “things on the bottom.”
“It’s important to Ocean City, Maryland, where they have a white marlin open tournament. They were extremely concerned,” said Depersenaire. “It’s extremely lucrative and most of the boats fish the Baltimore or Wilmington canyon.”
He said there were many public meetings in Maryland, and fishermen showed up to express their concerns.
“While the aquarium staff was giving assurances they would not try to request recreational fishing be prohibited, what we have to do is ensure we get an exemption,” said Depersenaire.