Concerns over two of Virginias premier sport fish – cobia and striped bass

Despite what has been a literal “explosion” in the number of anglers pursuing cobia in the lower Chesapeake Bay during the summer, the years since 2010 witnessed a disconcerting decline in the both the numbers of fish caught and the average size of fish being taken. This has also been accompanied by a fall in the number of “citation” catches (55lbs. for a capture citation and 50in. for a release citation). During the past twenty years the recreational cobia fishery expanded from one that only a few of the “hard core locals” targeted, to one that attracted a broad following of “hooked” anglers. The summer of 2009 witnessed a dramatic shift in technique from what had been primarily a “anchor-up-and-chum” fishery, to one that now has become as sight-casting endeavor from a growing armada of boats sprouting new towers from which anglers pitch live eels and jigs to fish cruising near the surface. While the established method for taking cobia in Florida for decades, the practice became popular the past ten years off the coastal waters of North Carolina. The growth in Virginia is evidenced in the growing number of charter captains and private anglers that have perfected sight-casting to an art form. There has also been a rise in the commercial hook-and-line sector that is increasingly targeting this popular game and food fish. Therein lies the “problem”. Many are becoming very concerned the species is under too much pressure. Science has shown the fish that migrate to Virginia waters are here to spawn, especially in the early summer. However, prior to doing that, they are running a rapidly expanding gauntlet of fishing pressure along the North Carolina Outer Banks followed by heavy pressure in densely populated southeastern Virginia. While CCA Virginia proactively pressed for a one fish per person limit in 2001, all of the states to the south, with the exception of Florida, still have a two fish limit for both the recreational and commercial sectors. To make matters worse, there are currently efforts by the Virginia commercial hook-and-line sector to raise their take to eight fish per vessel (2 per fisherman, up to four anglers). CCA Virginia opposes this and any other increase in this important game species. It is our hope that other states along the Atlantic coast will take an enlightened proactive approach and enact measures that are more restrictive than their current state regulations and those affecting federal offshore waters. Switching to striped bass, this pretty much sums up how this winter’s striped bass season has been: “no fish” were weighed in during the state’s largest striped bass tournament, the three day 11th annual Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout (January 9-11), run out of Virginia Beach. The season has been characterized by the virtual disappearance of smaller school fish from their traditional haunts (including the CBBT), and larger coastal migrants that typically position themselves in the ocean near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The population trends have been on a downward course in recent years, and this season’s lack of fish has truly raised the concern of virtually every saltwater fisherman in the state. The jury is out, but a multi-million dollar sport fishery has taken note. Hopefully, coastal fisheries managers will take this near term situation as yet another indicator that this fishery needs serious help.