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Ocean City commercial fleet brings home big catch

WEST OCEAN CITY — It’s unlikely you’ll just stumble upon the Maryland coastline’s only commercial fishing harbor.

But it’s there, and it’s moving millions of pounds of seafood. In 2010, more than 8 million pounds of catch, valued at more than $8 million, was harvested by commercial vessels that dock there.

The Ocean City Commercial Harbor is across the U.S. 50 bridge from the resort, in West Ocean City, nestled about a half-mile south of the road that hundreds of thousands of people travel annually to get to and from town.

However, unless first-time tourists hear about one of the restaurants or seafood markets surrounding the docks, they’re probably not going to end up in the area.

But get there early enough in the morning and you’ll see the commercial fishing vessels that dock at the harbor venture out to sea. At first light, they snake through the channels where Sinepuxent Bay meets Isle of Wight Bay, through the Ocean City Inlet that separates the resort from Assateague Island and out to the open ocean.

In the winter months, fishermen typically stay out until mid- to late afternoon. In the summer, they may stay out even longer before returning to the docks, depending on the weather. There are also watermen who venture out on trip boats and stay out to sea for days or weeks at a time.

Some of them stick to state-regulated waters, and others go federal — between three and 20 miles offshore — depending on individual permitting and the species of fish, mollusk or crustacean they’re seeking.

Some acquire permitting for both areas, according to Carrie Kennedy, the coastal fisheries program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

In state waters, they can get permits for horseshoe crab, black sea bass and summer flounder, among others, she said. Watermen in the area also catch surf clams, blue crabs, scallops, conk, welk, rockfish, tuna and swordfish, among others, according to DNR biologist Steve Doctor.

For the last half-decade, scallops have been the most profitable catch reported in the harbor. In 2010, more than 150,000 pounds of scallops worth more than $1 million were reported, according to data gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The scallops’ value is more than double that of any other species caught by commercial vessels that dock at the bay.

The amount of scallops trawled decreased in 2010 from the previous years. In both 2009 and 2008, more than 500,000 pounds of scallops were reported from the harbor, totaling more than $3 million in value.

“Based on some federal regulations, access to scallops has decreased,” Kennedy said.

The second and third most-profitable catches in 2010 were summer flounder and black sea bass, at about 221,000 pounds for around $444,000 and about 150,000 pounds for about $439,000, respectively.

Generally, the licensed commercial fleet coming out of Maryland fluctuates between about 30 and 50 anglers, according to Kennedy. It falls on the Coast Guard to ensure these fishermen and their boats stay in compliance with the regulations their permits dictate, according to Petty Officer William King, who works out of the Ocean City station.

They perform routine safety inspections, sometimes while the boats are at port, but most of the time they randomly board the vessels while they’re out at sea.

While on board, they make sure the watermen are inside the legal limits for fish size and catch. They also check to see if required safety gear is on board and that the captain and others have the proper licensing. In the winter months, the Coast Guard does about two to five inspections a month, King said.

Waterman John Martin said the officers don’t interfere with the fishing while they’re on board. Avoiding that is something King said they are consciously aware of.

“We try to stay out of their way when they’re doing business, because the commercial business is very competitive,” King said. “We just make sure what they’re doing is legal.”

The Atlantic Girl, a blue and white trawler captained by Martin, varies in crew size. When the boat is scalloping in springtime, six are on board, and when it’s fishing for flounder, there are only three. They’re paid a share based on the amount of seafood caught, and the amount is dictated by national- and state-mandated quotas and how successful the crew is at meeting them.

The quotas are either time- or weight-based, depending on what is being sought and the size of the ship. For instance, the Atlantic Girl went on two closed-area trips in 2011, which means the vessel had to stick to a certain part of the water and could get up to 14,000 pounds of scallops per trip.

There are also day quotas, which the Atlantic Girl took 15 of for scalloping, where you have a 24-hour period to fetch as many of the mollusks as possible.

For most of the species fished off the Maryland coast, the quota figures have stayed basically the same for a number of years, said Doctor, who added that “pretty much everything” is quota-based at present.

Martin also works at Martin Fish Co., a fresh seafood store on the harbor that sells fresh, locally caught fare. Some of it comes from the Atlantic Girl’s catch, and some is purchased from other commercial fishermen. The company is owned by his father and has been in the Martin family since his grandfather started the business in the 1940s.