Maryland is having the best white marlin fishing in several years, according to Sean Coughin and Lloyd Lewis, who operate the Talbot Street Pier in Ocean City. For Coughlin, Lewis and the nearly 30 charter boat captains who make their living taking well-paying deep sea fishermen 60 miles to sea in pursuit of one of nature's least understood fish, the return of the white marlin is a boon to business and a blessing to those who have worried about the decline of the fish in recent years.

Ocean City claims to be "the white marlin capital of the world," a title that once deserved and some say has now been lost to Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Since record keeping began in 1936, approximately 30,000 billfish, the vast majority white marlin, have been taken off Ocean City. Though marlin are purely a sport fish, not eaten, their numbers declined in recent years until 1976 when only 335 were caught.

Jim Cacey, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says that the causes of the decline is unknown and that Maryland has done very little research on marlin. But Coughlin sees two reasons for the improved fishing this year. "We've had a lot of south winds. That makes for warmer water and stronger tides and currents that bring the fish up from Florida. Also, more fishermen are releasing fish."

The only reason to keep a marlin is to mount it, which costs several hundred dollars. According to Coughlin, last year two 300-pound blue marlin, which are less common than the whites, ended up in the Ocean City dump. "That riled many captains who now make certain that customers know in advance the price of mounting a marlin.

Whether releasing more fish has helped is unclear, but as of last week the total catch for this year is 514. "We could have more than 800 marlin this year," says Jim Gordon, director of the Ocean City Public Relations Department. It may be the best year since 1971.

Each year the season usually starts in July and improves steadily until the first two weeks of September, so the best fishing is probably still to come. According to Coughlin, each boat that goes out now at least sights a half dozen marlin "tailing," - a term that describes the fish as they break surface while chasing baitfish.