— Amid warnings that slashing the striped bass catch by a third next year could devastate Chesapeake Bay commercial fishermen, Atlantic states regulators agreed Tuesday to consider reducing the catch more gradually over three years.

Members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made so many other changes to a proposal for protecting Maryland's state fish from a troubling decline that they could not finish reviewing it until Wednesday — and likely put off taking final action by three months, until fall.

The interstate commission had agreed to act after scientists warned that the highly prized migratory fish had slipped in the past several years to the verge of being overfished. The group agreed that fishing pressure needed to be reduced so more spawning females could survive and rebuild the population

Striped bass, also known locally as rockfish, roam from North Carolina to New England, but the bay is a major spawning and nursery ground. They are a valuable commercial catch, worth about $7 million annually in Maryland, but also much sought by thousands of sport fishermen in the bay and along the coast.

Recreational fishermen have been reporting declining catches for years and clamoring for action. New Englanders in particular complained their haul of "stripers" has dwindled by two-thirds or more.

"We're supposed to take action now," said Paul Diodati, a commissioner from Massachusetts, who contended that recreational fishing businesses have suffered from declining catches.

But Tom O'Connell, Maryland's fisheries director, successfully urged the commission to weigh phasing in catch restrictions over three years, instead of imposing the full cutback beginning Jan. 1. He contended that the fish stock in the bay was different and did not need to undergo such a severe cutback.

"We're not saying no action is needed," he said. But he added that he believed the proposal had been "rushed" and needed further evaluation, especially of the economic impacts of such a large cutback.

Russell Dize, an Eastern Shore waterman who sits on the commission, said he was glad the panel agreed to at least consider gradually reducing the catch. He said he believed charter fishing businesses and watermen could better cope with a 10 percent cutback next year than a reduction more than three times greater.

The commission, which regulates in-shore fishing from Maine to Florida, had planned to hold a series of hearings along the coast this summer to gather public suggestions on various ways to reduce the catch.

But with members changing the proposed options and adding new ones, the panel's staff needs more time to revise the proposal, so hearings have been delayed until early fall. A scheduled final vote also slipped from August until October, prompting some to worry that catch reductions may be delayed.

"This is terrible," said Ken Hastings, a Maryland representative of Stripers Forever, a recreational fishing group. "It makes kicking the can [down the road] into an Olympic sport."

Dick Brame, with the Coastal Conservation Association, another sport fishing group, said he was not surprised regulators would consider spreading out the reductions. But, he said, "we need to act."

William Goldsborough, fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a commission member, said the panel's deliberations were "not pretty." But he said he was confident it would wind up with "a good result."

"We're not done yet," he said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com