Virginia officials are weighing whether to cancel this year’s fishing season for large rockfish in the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay out of concern for its dwindling numbers.
The rockfish season in Virginia will begin April 20 along the Potomac River tributaries, then days later in the bay. But indications that the population of the fish, also called striped bass, is declining raised concerns that further catches could have a long-term effect on its survivability.
“Striped bass aren’t doing as well as we thought,” said Ellen Bolen, deputy commissioner for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “We’re taking fish out faster than they can reproduce.”
Bolen’s group, which helps manage and oversee fish populations in the state, is expected to vote April 23 on an “emergency proposal” that would recommend canceling the trophy-size rockfish season, when anglers can keep rockfish that measure 36 inches or longer.
If the proposal passes, it would become effective April 29 — creating a nine-day season this year along the Potomac’s tributaries. A public hearing would be held in late May.
Maryland officials said they have similar concerns about the rockfish population, but there are no efforts to halt the spring rockfish season in the state. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources plans to work with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing in coastal waters, for other possible solutions.
“We share the same concerns, but we’re going to hold the line and maintain what we have for this season,” said Mike Luisi, assistant director of fishing and boating services at the natural resources department.
Rockfish are popular to catch and eat along much of the Eastern Seaboard, from North Carolina to Maine. In the spring, they enter the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn. Fishing for large-size rockfish is a popular sport, especially among charter fishing businesses that offer trips along the bay and river.
But rockfish have had troubles in recent years.
Experts said they’ve been overfished, leaving fewer female fish that spawn. Virginia marine experts said they’re worried the fish is “not biologically stable” at current levels.
Recent findings also showed that nearly half of rockfish thrown back into the water after being caught had died.
“There’s a factor of enjoyment in fishing, but the amount of fish that are just being thrown back and dying is a waste,” Luisi said.
Other factors that affect rockfish populations include abrupt changes in water temperatures and unfavorable weather during spawning season.
Virginia fisheries have seen a decline in recent years in the number of striped bass harvested for recreational anglers. Experts said the number has gone from 368,000 in 2010 to 52,000 striped bass harvested in 2018. The rate of trophy-size fish being caught also has fallen.
“The older, larger fish are the spawning females, and the more eggs she lays, the more she produces, but you have to make sure you have fish that are breeding for the next generation, so you can’t have all the large females caught,” Bolen said.
Officials acknowledge that canceling trophy-size fishing seasons would hurt businesses that rely on fishing.
“If you’re a charter boat captain, the opportunity for Marylanders and Virginians to catch those big fish only comes around for a short period of time in the spring,” Luisi said. “The charter boat community relies heavily on that interest of anglers to catch these big fish.”
Richard Manley, who runs a charter boat fishing company in Rock Hall, Md., said he shared concerns about the rockfish population and the low rate of survival for fish that are thrown back.
“When you have a fish with a belly full of eggs and you catch it, that takes it out of reproducing,” Manley said. “If we want to have these fish around, we have to save our resources.”
Concerns over the rockfish population also sprung up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Maryland and Virginia had a moratorium because of their low population levels. The fish made a comeback, but anglers and fish experts said they don’t want to repeat what happened years ago.
Steve Atkinson, board director for the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, said those restrictions helped to restore the population.
“It was a success story that the numbers came back,” he said, “but we don’t want to repeat that again.”