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Tilghman Island watermen unload their last catch of rockfish for the season in this 2015 file photo.
Tilghman Island watermen unload their last catch of rockfish for the season in this 2015 file photo. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

An interstate commission that oversees the catch for a variety of Atlantic fish has moved to reduce the harvest of the declining population of striped bass and to punish a Virginia company for netting too many menhaden, a key food source for striped bass and other species.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is reducing state-by-state quotas on commercial rockfish harvests by 18%. It will be up to state officials to decide how to achieve the harvest reduction, whether through changes to the length of the striped bass fishing season or to commercial quotas.

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To satisfy the requirements, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is exploring date changes for the striped bass trophy season in 2020, and limits on catch-and-release fishing prior to spawning season, spokesman Gregg Bortz said. Maryland already required anglers to use what are known as circle hooks, which are safer for fish and the commission is making mandatory now in all states.

The commission voted Thursday to recommend that states reduce the minimum size of rockfish that can be caught recreationally from 19 inches to 18 inches, and to limit anglers just a single fish a day, instead of two. Such steps aim to reduce what is known as catch-and-release mortality, when fish are wounded by hooks but must be thrown back because they’re too small to be caught legally.

Mike Luisi, a fisheries division director in the state natural resources office, said Maryland may choose not to adopt that recommendation, and instead take other steps to limit the number of rockfish being caught or killed.

The commission also found the state of Virginia “out of compliance” for exceeding a cap on harvest of menhaden, small, oily fish that are used to make health and beauty products but are also at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay food chain and a key food source for striped bass. While the action applies to the state, it targets Omega Protein Corp., a company that catches the vast majority of menhaden in bay waters.

Omega defied the commission’s cap on the Virginia menhaden catch this year, landing 16,000 metric tons more than allowed under the quota.

The commission’s decision means the U.S. Secretary of Commerce must decide whether and how to restrict Omega, including possibly imposing a moratorium on menhaden fishing in Virginia waters.

Omega officials said menhaden aren’t being overfished, and have called a commission quota on them artificially low.

“The best available science points to a fishery that is healthy and sustainable,” Omega CEO Bret Scholtes said in a statement. “As we have done for many years, we pledge to work with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to improve menhaden management, as we move toward ecological reference points.”

Maryland’s representatives on the commission voted in favor of declaring Virginia out of compliance with menhaden rules, Bortz said, and they remain concerned about the precedent Omega set by ignoring the commission’s menhaden cap. State natural resources officials are urging the commission and Virginia to find agreement on “a clear set of rules” for menhaden catch, Bortz said.

Conservation groups applauded the commission’s moves.

Chris Moore, a senior regional ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the striped bass harvest restrictions “an important step in a much larger process to recover the striped bass population.”

“All states in the region must now take meaningful action if we hope to see the iconic striped bass fishery once again rebound,” Moore said in a statement.

David Sikorski, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, thanked the commission and called on states to work cooperatively to address the rockfish population decline.

“Striped bass are one of the most sought-after fish on the Atlantic coast and the official state fish of Maryland," said Sikorski, whose group represents recreational anglers. “We commend the Striped Bass Management Board for sending a clear signal that all sectors should do their part to recover this iconic fishery which is so important to our local economy and our culture.”

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Moore added that it “would be a travesty” if Omega were allowed to exceed menhaden harvest caps without consequences.

“Virginians continue to suffer from one company that violates the spirit of cooperative fisheries management and the wishes of thousands of Virginians who want to see menhaden managed under a precautionary approach in the Chesapeake Bay,” he said in a statement.

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