Recreational anglers will see their allowable catch of striped bass curtailed this fall, an effort by state regulators to protect a diminishing stock they say is being overfished.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved emergency regulations that will limit fishermen to a single fish between 20 and 36 inches long per day during the coming fall recreational season.
Deputy Commissioner Ellen Bolen said the commission’s staff found that 2018 was the lowest estimate of the harvest of striped bass since a moratorium was placed on the fishery in 1990.
“Poor management of striped bass over the past decade has caused significant economic harm to Virginians who depend on healthy fisheries for their livelihoods and has reduced opportunities for recreational anglers,” said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler.
“We need other states to follow our example and help rebuild the striped bass population starting immediately. Delay is unacceptable and the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission must take decisive action that will ensure restoration of this fishery up and down the coast.”
In April, the state canceled the trophy striped bass season as part of an effort to guard against overfishing.
“The recent stock assessment shows that immediate action is needed to slow the decline and restore this fishery to sustainable levels,” Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner Steven G. Bowman said in a statement. “Restoring this fishery to its full potential will require further actions for the commercial and recreational fisheries in the coming months.”
Though the recreational striped bass fishery is closed right now, Bolen said the commission issued the emergency regulations to give anglers advance notice as the Oct. 4 start of the fall recreational season approaches. Previously anglers were allowed to keep two fish: one between 20 and 28 inches and one allowed to exceed 28 inches with no maximum size.
The new restrictions also require a maximum gill net size (the size of the gap in the mesh) of 9 inches in the coastal commercial fishery and 7 inches in the Chesapeake Bay fishery. The commission says the measures will “lower overall mortality of striped bass and protect the large breeding fish that are critical to the health and future of the population.”
The regulations will be revisited by the commission at its September meeting, which will include public comment.
“With the reduced numbers of striped bass found by the recent coastwide stock assessment, Virginia should be commended for taking decisive action at this time,” said Chris Moore, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“Strong conservation-minded decisions such as this are needed all along the East Coast to bring back a thriving population of this iconic fish. The VMRC’s proactive measures to help improve the striped bass population is another positive sign that Virginia is serious about ensuring a healthier fishery in the future.”
Capt. Alan Alexander, who runs York River Charters out of Gloucester Point, said the new restrictions weren’t unexpected, though he said they would likely make some customers think twice before booking a trip.
“It’s not going to help us business-wise,” he said. He reiterated a common complaint among sport fishermen: the menhaden-reduction fishery operated by Omega Protein out of Reedville sucks up too much of the stripers’ food supply.
“If they would focus as much on the menhaden fishing in the bay as they would the striped bass I don’t think we’d have a striped bass problem,” he said, adding that it’s hard to overstate the importance “of that stinky, oily fish as forage.”
There’s no more politically fraught fish in Virginia then menhaden, the only species regulated by the General Assembly instead of the Marine Resources Commission.
Conservationists and sport fishermen have squared off in legislative committee meetings against the politically muscular commercial fishing operation over catch quotas in the Chesapeake Bay, where Omega’s boats can pull in plenty of fish without having to burn the fuel it takes to get out to the Atlantic Ocean.
Virginia evaded a sanction earlier this year for failing to adopt new menhaden catch limits imposed for the bay by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which said it will avoid action as long as the fishery remains below a new, lower cap of 51,000 metric tons set for the bay.
“If the cap is exceeded, the board can reconsider the issue of compliance,” the commission said in a statement. “While the bay cap was established as a precautionary measure given the importance of menhaden as a prey species, additional information stemming from the development of ecological-based reference points may be informative to the bay cap issue.”
The commission’s menhaden management board says it will consider modifying the cap after those studies are in, which is projected to be next year.
“The bottom line is, it’s not rocket science. If you have forage, you will have predators; if you don’t, you won’t,” Alexander said.
Mike Avery, president of the the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, said the group, which is generally supportive of measures to preserve striped bass numbers, took issue with the commission acting before receiving public comment.
“Our opinion is VMRC is abusing their authority,” Avery said, adding that the restrictions are “feel-good” measures since Virginia anglers account for such a small percentage of striped bass caught along the Atlantic coast.
Between 2016 and 2018, Maryland took in about 42 percent of all striped bass harvested along the Atlantic coast. New Jersey and New York had the next biggest harvests, accounting for about 19 and 15 percent, respectively. Virginia accounted for about 3 percent of the overall harvest.
“These fish are in trouble and we have to start now in protecting the fish. Most of the anglers want to see these fish conserved and brought back and everyone’s willing to tighten the belt and do their part,” Avery said. “We just want the other states to do their part too.”
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the regional group that manages more than two dozen species, is considering changes to the management plan for striped bass to address overfishing.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to add comment from Mike Avery, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association.