Virginia’s bluefish catch is shrinking — so is the state’s quota for commercial fisherman

A long-term drop in Virginia’s commercial catch of bluefish has sparked a deep cut in the state’s share of the coastwide quota.

The latest amendment to the fishery’s management plan cuts Virginia’s share of the Atlantic coast quota from 11.88% to 5.87% — the biggest reduction for any of the coastal states.

New York and Massachusetts are the biggest gainers, with New York’s share rising from 10.39% to 19.76% and Massachusetts’ from 6.72% to 10.12%.

In addition to the new state allocations, the total coastwide allocation for commercial fishermen is declining from 17% of all bluefish landed to 14%. The difference means an increased share for recreational fisherman, from 83% to 86%.

All those changes are to be phased in over seven years, according to the fishery plan managers, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

The aim is to rebuild the total stock of bluefish. Bluefish have been overfished, but with the total catch down from a peak of about 180 million pounds in 1987 to just under 19 million pounds in 2019, they are not currently overfished.

On top of the allocation cut, Virginia has agreed to transfer 50,000 pounds of its bluefish quota to New York State — another sign of how much the state fishery has shrunk.

“The bluefish population does appear to be moving north as are other species,” said Patrick J. Geer, chief of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s Fisheries Management Division.

“Warming water temperatures are part of the issue, but population density is higher” in the waters off New England, New York and New Jersey, he said.

Both factors are driving the shift in quotas, as well as a shift in commercial fishing operations.

Virginia’s commercial catch has been sliding since around 2008, Geer said. The average over the past five years is about a quarter the typical catch from the first decade of the 21st century.

Virginia’s commercial catch hit a high of about 800,000 pounds in 2001 but fell to just under 100,000 pounds last year.

Since the commercial fishery takes only about 13% of all bluefish landed, the quota shifts shouldn’t have an effect on recreational fishermen, Geer said. They landed nearly 3 million pounds in 2007, a recent peak. Last year’s landings fell to about 1.25 million pounds, from 2 million the year before.

Bluefish are fierce fighters when hooked, and as a result are a popular species to chase.

The old quota allocation was based on catch data from the 1980s, when Virginia’s fishery was much larger, Geer said.

Bluefish winter in waters south of Cape Hatteras and migrate north in the spring and summer. They are predators, feeding on a wide variety of small species — sometimes with a so-called “bluefish blitz” attacking schools of smaller fish so fiercely that the water churns.

Dave Ress, 757-247-4535,