Rockfish red flag

March 19, 2006

When it comes to striped bass (also called rockfish), the state of Virginia has often been a reluctant conservationist. While Maryland and Delaware declared fishing moratoria to rescue the species in 1985, Virginia didn't close the fishery until 1989 and then for only one year. Even so, the subsequent recovery of rockfish is considered one of the Chesapeake Bay's greatest conservation success stories. But now the fish faces a new threat, and once again, Virginia must act.

The problem is that growing numbers of rockfish have developed mycobacteriosis. About two-thirds of the bay's rockfish are thought to carry the disease, which is caused by a relatively common bacteria. It's not considered dangerous to humans (although it can cause skin infections among fish handlers). Scientists aren't sure why mycobacteriosis is on the rise locally, but they've observed that the problem coincides with a marked change in the diet of bay rockfish.

Specifically, it has become a lot more difficult for rockfish to feed on menhaden. That's because a fleet of ships from the Omega Protein Corp. plant in Reedville, Va., nets as many as a billion of the small, oily menhaden each year from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. That's a staggering amount. Last year, Maryland officials persuaded the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to cap Omega's harvest. But last weekend, the Virginia legislature adjourned from its regular session without complying.

That leaves the matter in the hands of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who needs to use his executive powers to impose restrictions on Omega before the menhaden season begins this spring. This wouldn't necessarily cure everything that ails rockfish; no doubt pollution and habitat loss are putting stresses on the species as well. But Virginia's failure to comply with ASMFC findings is putting rockfish at greater risk. Reining in Omega, a supplier of oil, meal and paint additives, is a prudent step to take.

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