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Friday, January 11, 2019

Where are the rockfish? Virginia looks to enact tighter striped bass regulations
By Lee Tolliver
Staff writer

After years of chatter about the declining population of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, the state is looking at tightening its regulations for upcoming seasons.

At Wednesday's Finfish Management Advisory Committee, it was announced that the Secretary of Natural Resources has suggested looking at alternatives to current length and bag limits for one of the state's most popular gamefish.

During the recent Chesapeake Bay fall season, anglers could keep two fish a day between 20 and 28 inches, although one fish could be longer than 28. Dozens of fish longer than 40 inches, considered prime breeding stock by biologists, were harvested last fall — far fewer than previous seasons.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission "striped bass committee will look at the stock assessment and consider any changes to regulation when it meets in February, but those changes wouldn't come into play until 2020," said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler, a recreation angler with a master's degree in marine science from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

"We think we should be more proactive and get something in place that will help this tremendous fishery recover."

The commission's preliminary stock assessment for a fishery that extends well up the northeastern coast isn't good. It appears the species is being overfished by commercial and recreational fishermen. So the agency likely would implement tighter restrictions. A couple decades ago, the fishery had been depleted to the point where the agency issued a moratorium on fishing for striped bass.

At Wednesday's advisory meeting, there appeared to be some misunderstanding as to what the secretary was asking for, and social media blew up with talk that he had ordered the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to make changes.

"That is totally incorrect," said Steve Bowman, commissioner of the VMRC. "The secretary and I have talked about striped bass because, obviously from what we're seeing and hearing, the population isn't what it should be.

"Has he ordered a directive? Absolutely not."

A major point of concern for Virginia's anglers would be to have the state work with Maryland fisheries managers so that regulations are equal between the states that share the bay's rockfish population. Bowman gave assurances that the conversation would begin soon. In the meantime, the advisory committee was tasked with coming up with the best possible solution pleasing the most anglers while still meeting the call for changes.

One idea being supported by anglers on Facebook is to adopt size and bag limits similar to those that prevent the taking of big red drum. Since new rules were enacted a couple decades ago, the species has made a remarkable comeback and the population of big trophy fish easily could serve as a benchmark for regulatory success.

Anglers in Virginia can keep three drum a day between 18 and 26 inches. All others must be released. Anglers can earn an award in Virginia for released fish measuring longer than 46 inches. Last year, Virginia waters produced 864 reds that met that standard. In contrast, state waters produced only 192 striped bass that met a 40-pound keeper minimum last year.

The last really good striper season was in 2012, when 906 fish of 40 pounds or more were caught, and 425 measuring at least 44 inches were released.

"We want our pros and the advisory committee to give us some ideas so that we can present them to the angling public to help this fishery," Bowman said. "We want to be proactive and protect this very important fish."

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