Karl Blankenship, BayJournal.com

Virginia and two New England states are urging other East Coast fishery managers to move quickly to curb striped bass catches in the wake of a new assessment that found the prized species was being overfished.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted unanimously April 23 to shut down the state’s spring striped bass trophy season, which targets the largest fish in the population.

Big striped bass, or rockfish, are a popular springtime catch for anglers. But the larger fish also happen to be the most productive egg bearers. (Photo courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

The action comes in the wake of a new stock assessment that found striped bass along the East Coast, also known as rockfish, were in worse shape than previously thought and had been overfished for several years.

“Virginia has always been a conservation leader, and this is a time to step up. The recent stock assessment shows that early action is needed to slow the decline and restore this fishery to sustainable levels,” said Steven Bowman, head of the commission.

The stock assessment’s preliminary findings were presented in February to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a panel of East Coast fishery managers. The commission is expected to formally adopt the assessment at a meeting April 30, at which time it will also be briefed on harvest reduction options that could reverse the trend.

The commission’s process to adopt new regulations normally takes many months, though, and at its February meeting it was unclear how quickly the ASMFC would act, especially as it had not yet received the full assessment.

But in an April 17 letter sent to James Gilmore, the commission’s chair, environmental officials from Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut say “we cannot afford to continue unsustainable levels of fishing” as the commission mulls its response to the assessment.

“Scientific evidence and what fishermen in our states are seeing on the water tell us that bold action to protect striped bass is long overdue,” they wrote. “Rebuilding striped bass stocks and sustaining them at target levels of abundance is incredibly important to fisheries in our states. We urge the Commission to implement measures that will reduce striped bass harvests to sustainable levels as quickly as possible.”

They called for the commission to commit to adopt new measures by its October meeting, while urging states to act sooner on their own. States that take early action, they said, should get credit for those efforts when new conservation measures are established by the commission.

In Virginia, the closing of the state’s spring trophy season affects fishing from May 1 through June 15 and targets fish at least 36 inches long. In the state’s Potomac River tributaries, the season is from April 29 through May 15, with a minimum size of 35 inches. Along the Atlantic coast, the season runs May 1 through May 15, with a 36-minimum length.

From May 16 though June 15, anglers will be able to keep two striped bass measuring 20-28 inches.

The large fish are popular for anglers, but are also important to the health of the overall population because they produce a disproportionately large number of eggs. Although striped bass spend most of their lives migrating along the coast, most are spawned in the Bay’s tributaries.

“The state of our striped bass fishery is shameful, especially considering that it was fully rebuilt just a few years ago,” said Matthew Strickler, Virginia secretary of natural resources, “We need immediate action to reduce striped bass harvests to sustainable levels to ensure we have better fishing in future seasons.”

Striped bass were heavily overfished in the 1970s and 1980s, sending the population to record low levels and ultimately leading to a fishing moratorium in the Bay and along the coast in the late 1980s.

The population rebuilt and reached new peaks by the early 2000s, but has been declining since 2010, at least in part because a number of dry springs in the Chesapeake region led to a series of years with lower than average reproduction.

In recommending emergency action, the VMRC staff noted that the recreational catch of striped bass in Virginia has declined from 368,000 fish in 2010 to less than 52,000 last year. Angler reports of catching trophy-sized fish also has been low in recent years, they said. The staff recommended closing trophy season effective April 29.

While all East Coast fishery managers agreed at the ASMFC’s February meeting that action was needed, the sense of urgency was not uniform. The overall population, while declining, remains far above what it was in the 1980s. And some suggested that the commission’s management goals for the species may be unrealistically high for a species whose abundance naturally varies over time.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is going ahead with that state’s trophy season for striped bass as is the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, a bi-state panel which regulates fishing in the mainstem of the river. The season in both cases runs April 20 through May 15, with a minimum catchable size of 35 inches.

In a press release announcing the spring trophy season, the Maryland DNR said it intends to work through the management process set up by the Atlantic States commission and expects to have a “more long-term picture” of the fishery after the commission’s April 30 meeting.

Staff writer Jeremy Cox contributed to this report.

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...