The fishing season for large rockfish in tributaries of the Potomac River, along the Atlantic coastline and parts of the Chesapeake Bay is canceled in Virginia this year out of concern for the fish’s dwindling population.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission on Tuesday voted 7-0 on an emergency proposal to cancel the recreational season of catching trophy-size rockfish. Rockfish, also called striped bass, have been below sustainable levels for six years and have been overfished since 2010, according to experts at the commission.
“Virginia has always been a conservation leader, and this is a time to step up,” Commissioner Steven G. Bowman said in a statement. He said the cancellation was needed to slow the decline of the rockfish population and “restore this fishery to sustainable levels.”
Recent studies have found that rockfish are being caught at a faster rate than they are reproducing, prompting concerns about their survivability. Virginia marine experts say nearly half of rockfish thrown back into the water after being caught are dying.
Rockfish are popular to catch and eat along much of the Eastern Seaboard, from North Carolina to Maine. Fishing for large-size rockfish is also a popular sport, especially among charter businesses that offer fishing trips.
In the spring, they enter the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn.
The Virginia ban on recreational catching and keeping of trophy-size rockfish — those 36 inches or longer — eliminates the spring season in the Chesapeake Bay that was to run from May 1 to June 15, along the coast from May 1 to May 15, and along Virginia tributaries of the Potomac from April 29 to May 15.
Anglers in Virginia still can catch and keep two striped bass that measure between 20 and 28 inches from May 16 to June 15.
In Maryland, officials say they are concerned about the rockfish population, but have no plans this year to stop the season.
Bowman said he hopes the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing in coastal waters, will take similar measures for other states.
Fisheries in Virginia have seen the number of rockfish harvested for recreational anglers go from 368,000 in 2010 to 52,000 in 2018 as the population has dropped. The rate of trophy-size fish being caught also has fallen.
Experts said they’re particularly concerned that larger, trophy-size fish being caught are often females.
“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,” said Ellen Bolen, deputy commissioner for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
It isn’t the first time rockfish numbers have worried the commission, which helps manage and oversee fish populations in the state.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Maryland and Virginia placed moratoriums on fishing for striped bass because of their low population levels — an action officials say helped restore their population.