A federal panel has overridden strong objections from Virginia and called for a ban on striped bass fishing in the Potomac River.
The decision, made toward the end of an edgy 11-hour meeting late Monday night, was hailed yesterday by Maryland officials, who opposed a Potomac River Fisheries Commission decision last month to allow striped bass fishing to continue there when the rest of Maryland waters will shut down Jan. 1 in a statewide, four-year moratorium.
The Potomac is in Maryland, but its marine resources are managed by the bistate commission because both Virginia and Maryland fishermen use it. The river accounts for about one-fourth the striped bass, also called stripers, caught in Maryland waters.
In addition to recommending the Potomac closing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's 11-member Striped Bass Management Board voted late Monday for a ban on striper fishing in Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay's main stem, a move Virginia also opposed. And the board approved several other conservation measures in an effort to stem a 10-year decline of the Maryland state fish, locally known as rockfish.
The meeting was attended by representatives of 11 eastern states affected by the rockfish decline.
The panel's recommendation goes to the commission, which is empowered by Congress to impose a rockfish moratorium on any state that doesn't comply with its conservation requirements. The commission is expected to approve the recommendation, which could go into effect as early as April.
The panel's recommendation represented a victory for Maryland conservationists concerned that continued, extensive striper fishing in the Potomac and Virginia waters, as well as elsewhere along the coast, could undermine the effects of the moratorium in Maryland, where the majority of East Coast rockfish are spawned.
Paul Perra, program coordinator for the Atlantic fisheries commission, said Virginia representatives argued their stocks of rockfish were improving and they felt closing the fishery would create unnecessary hardship on commercial fishermen.
Nonetheless, Perra said, "Virginia has indicated a willingness to compromise." Jack Travelstead, Virginia's assistant commissioner of fisheries management, said the state is "taking a look at additional restrictions" on the Potomac, where commercial striper fishermen are enjoying a banner year.
Maryland's representative on the striper management board, state Tidewater Commissioner Lee Zeni, said in addition to voting to close the Potomac and the bay's main stem in Virginia, the board recommended increasing the minimum legal size for rockfish caught in offshore waters coastwide to 28 inches from the current 18 to 24 inches; increasing minimum rockfish sizes in inland waters to protect young fish until they themselves have a chance to spawn about age 6, and to support restoration of rockfish in the Delaware Bay and impose an eventual moratorium there.
Perra said Virginia's representative, Commissioner Bill Pruitt, voted against all measures. He was not available for comment.
Perra said the conflict between Maryland and Virginia represents a difference in philosophy. "It's a matter of perspective," he said. "Scientists told us that with our 55 percent reduction plan, we had about a 50 percent chance of stabilizing the rockfish population at today's low levels within 10 years.
"Maryland looked at that, said, 'It's not enough,' " said Perra, and the state unilaterally initiated its moratorium.
"Virginia has a different point of view," said Perra. "They see a few more fish in their rivers and figure they can continue limited fishing." The problem, he said, is that as a neighboring state Virginia is in perfect position to exploit rockfish population gains resulting from Maryland's moratorium.