Trophy-sized rockfish catches are no longer allowed in Virginia waters. Photo: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

Va. Nixes Striped Bass “Bonus Fish Program” in Light of Conservation Efforts

When Virginia fishery managers virtually eliminated the striped bass trophy season one year ago, the came up with a plan that would still allow anglers to catch that “once in a lifetime” fish.

But in the interest of protecting the rockfish spawning stock, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) has announced it’s cutting the proposed Striped Bass Bonus Fish Program.

Finding that striped bass were being overfished, East Coast fisheries managers required Virginia, Maryland and the rest of the Atlantic states to reduce their rockfish removals by 18 percent. To achieve the reduction, VMRC took actions in August 2019 that included dropping the fall recreational fishing limit to one rockfish per angler per day and creating a maximum size limit of 36 inches for the fall.

Because this maximum size limit basically took away the chance for anglers to harvest trophy-sized fish, VMRC proposed a new Striped Bass Bonus Fish Program that would allow anglers one opportunity per year to take home a single trophy rockfish larger than the 36-inch legal limit.

Under the program, anglers would be required to buy a permit and would be given a tag for their one trophy fish. They would have to report that fish to the agency or return the unused tag to be eligible the following year. Charter captains would have been able to buy up to 10 tags at a time.

But the Bonus Fish Program wasn’t to be: VMRC decided, based on scientific information related to a new Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) amendment, that a bonus program for striped bass could be damaging to the stock given its overfished status.

“Given the present circumstances, it would not be prudent to initiate a program that harvests the spawning stock.” said Commissioner Steven G. Bowman. “We’d be better served protecting the large females until we reduce fishing pressure and ensure a healthy population for current and future generations of anglers”.

ASMFC just approved the development of a new amendment that will rewrite the fishery management plan for stripers and address their vulnerable spawning stock.

Funding challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic sealed the Bonus Fish Program’s fate. Fisheries Management Division Chief Patrick Geer tells Bay Bulletin that existing budget cuts and expected cuts in the near future “has made it necessary to reevaluate the agency’s existing and planned programs.” Geer notes that the project costs exceeded the expected revenue.

-Meg Walburn Viviano