By Lee Tolliver
© December 31, 2014
Willie Zimmerman sauntered down the Virginia Beach Fishing Center docks toward a small tent that was doing little to keep its occupants dry or warm. He dragged with him a fat striped bass that was drawing considerable attention – especially because it was the only one brought to the electronic scales under the tent.
Zimmerman might have been better off keeping his boat, Absolut Pleasure, at its docks in Ocean City, Md., than spending the weekend in Virginia Beach to compete in the 12th annual Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout.
While catches in the event were better than during the last two tournaments, they paled in comparison to the glory days when nearly every team hit the scales with their daily limit of three fish.
"We've been crushing them along the coast around Ocean City like crazy the last few weeks," said Zimmerman, whose fish weighed 29.3 pounds. "But not down here."
Zimmerman and the other teams in the Shootout were taking advantage of a change in the dates that allowed teams to fish in the Chesapeake Bay, where catches have been decent the past month or so. Some teams – like winner LeGrande Slam 1, with a three-fish total of 125.8 pounds – met with success. Most didn't.
No teams fished along the coast because rockfish that have migrated this far south have once again decided to hang with large schools of bait outside the legal waters of within 3 miles offshore. From 3 to 200 miles, an area known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, it is illegal to target or catch striped bass.
"There just aren't as many fish in the bay as there used to be," Zimmerman said.
It's a sentiment shared the last two years by Virginia's striped bass anglers, many of whom have clamored for regulations to stop or slow what they view as a downward spiral in the coastal rockfish population.
While many argue there are still plenty of fish, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has heard the cries and made a move to reduce commercial and recreational catches by 25 percent.
Starting Thursday, when the Chesapeake Bay rockfish season closes, anglers working ocean waters from the coast to 3 miles out can keep only one fish that measures at least 28 inches. The limit had been two.
"I don't know if it will help or not," said Waverunner III Captain Pat Foster. "It's hard to catch just one in the ocean here lately."
The Marine Fisheries Commission's Striped Bass Technical Committee said in a recent report that, according to the 2013 stock assessment, catches have exceeded the proposed mortality threshold for six of the preceding nine years. In addition, the female spawning stock has declined steadily and been under its target since 2006.
State fisheries managers along the coast will meet in the spring to determine what other changes will be made to comply with the federal mandate. Several combinations of seasons, bag limits and slot limits can be used to meet the necessary cutbacks.
The coastal reduction, captains say, will hurt business.
"Who wants to pay all that money and only be able to keep one fish?" Zimmerman asked. "At least two fish seemed like something.
"And you watch, once they drop it to one fish, we'll never get that other fish back."
In Virginia waters, the cuts could spell the end of a slowly dying winter business.
"We're already getting plenty of phone calls," said John Crowling, manager of the Virginia Beach Fishing Center. "Despite how things have been the last couple of years, we still had some customers willing to come and give it a try. But not for one fish.
"I know our captains wanted some change, but they wanted it with access to at least do some catch-and-release fishing in the EEZ. This change is very disappointing."
Opening the Exclusive Economic Zone to striper fishing has long been debated, especially by Virginia and North Carolina captains, who concede that it likely will never happen. Along the coasts of Maryland to Maine, fish tend to stay inside the 3-mile limit.
For years, they did the same along the Virginia coast. But fish have stayed outside the last couple of seasons.
"This simply isn't a Northern states thing because of the way their fishery is," said Skip Feller, a captain who runs head boats out of the fishing center and serves on the Virginia Marine Resources Commission's Finfish Management Advisory Committee. "There will be more meetings in the spring, and we're doing everything we can to try and not change too much in the bay. There are lots of options that will help us comply."
Feller says Virginia will be able to bring back a two-fish coastal limit for 2016.
"We'll have to do some work with size or slot limits that will help us comply," he said. "But this year is an ASMFC thing, and we're done for January, February and March.
"It is what it is for now."
Whether any kind of rules will help Virginia's coastal fishery is open for debate.
Some captains say a total coastal recreational and commercial moratorium, like the one in the late 1980s, is the only way to rebuild the population. Those closures were widely credited as fisheries management's biggest success story.
Others hint that striped bass might continue to winter in the EEZ – or maybe always have.
"We've got captains out there looking for bluefin tuna, and they can't keep the striper off their baits," Crowling said. "Maybe they only came in during the great years because winds brought in the bait. I don't know.
"All I know is that I haven't seen much of any data to support this drastic of a change."
A change that starts at midnight tonight.
Lee Tolliver, 757-222-5844, firstname.lastname@example.org