NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Catching fish in Virginia waters has gotten a bit more challenging: You can't shoot them anymore.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted yesterday to outlaw immediately the use of guns to kill fish, to keep fishermen from accidentally shooting other boaters.
Spears, spear guns, and bows and arrows can stay in the fishermen's arsenal, the commission decided.
Shooting fish gained popularity this year largely because of the comeback of the cobia, said Erik J. Barth, the commission's deputy chief of fisheries management.
Cobia, which can grow to 60 pounds or more, don't scare easily and loiter around boats, swimming at the surface and becoming easy targets for gun-toting fishermen, Barth said. This summer cobia were prevalent in the lower Chesapeake Bay and near the mouth of the York River.
"We have reports of guys using .357 Magnums on cobia," he said. Sharks are sometimes shot in the water, too, Barth said, but they usually shy away from boats.
Virginia's new fish-shooting prohibition has one exception: It allows fishermen to shoot sharks to subdue them after they've been caught by rod and reel.
"How can we tell if the fisherman caught the shark, then shot it or if he shot it, then brought it aboard?" asked commission member Jane C. Webb.
Commission members said they will enforce the new law by relying on other boaters to report fishermen who continue to shoot fish. Bows and arrows are seldom used to catch fish, especially saltwater fish.
But scuba fishermen, who use spears and spear guns underwater, opposed banning those weapons, saying they are safe for people and they allow scuba fishermen to be more selective than fishermen who use nets and kill fish they didn't intend to catch.
Maryland also prohibits shooting fish, except for "trash fish" -- such as carp and oyster toads -- that don't taste good or make good bait, according to a spokesman with the Maryland Marine Police.
Virginians who want to shoot fish can go to North Carolina, where it's legal. "Down in North Carolina we haven't had that situation to worry about," said Jeff Radowski, a special agent in North Carolina with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Are they really shooting fish in Virginia?"