- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Virginia regulators are considering new restrictions on a traditional form of fishing to protect the Chesapeake Bay’s sea grasses.

Few commercial fishermen still use the long, weighted net called a haul seine, but those who do are opposed to the limits and to the idea that their trade — once practiced by George Washington — is tearing up grass beds and harming the environment.

In March, state legislators adopted a new definition of haul seine to clarify rules for a fishing industry that brings about $3 million worth of croaker, grey trout and spot to seafood markets each year.

At a recent Virginia Marine Resources Commission public hearing, fishermen challenged scientists, sportsmen and environmentalists who want to shut down hundreds of acres of damaged grass beds to netting activity.

“This whole issue is a sham intended to put haul seiners out of business,” said Doug Jenkins, a waterman near the Potomac River. “There’s a lot more things causing damage to those grasses than haul seines, but you don’t hear anything about regulating.”

The commission is recommending that haul seiners be required to call their fishing plans in before working. They would be allowed to withdraw fish with an internal, circular net called “the pocket” only three hours before and after high tide.

Under the changes considered, the fishermen will not be allowed to drag their weighted nets for more than half a nautical mile and could lose their commercial licenses after a first offense.

Jack Travelstead, the state fisheries director, said no grass beds will be closed for now, though the commission might consider that option later this year if other limits don’t work.

Scientists say the underwater grasses are crucial to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

They breathe oxygen into the water, filter sediments and nutrients, and shelter baby crabs and fish.

The grasses cover about 85,000 acres in the Bay, which scientists say is just a fraction of their historical prevalence in Virginia and Maryland. The grasses slowly are returning to the Bay.

The netting dispute stems in part from research published two years ago by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Bob Orth led the study and scanned aerial photographs, determining that 26 grassy areas in shallow waters had been damaged severely by boat propellers from 1987 to 2000.

The damage runs through beds in the York River, Mobjack Bay, Poquoson Flats and Back River. Almost all the scars are in straight lines and jut from sand bars.

In the study, Mr. Orth said recreational boating and crabbing might be to blame for some of the damage, but he concluded that haul seining is most likely to have been the major culprit. The area is a popular place for the fishing technique, practiced in shallow waters where grasses grow.

A mesh net is about 1,000 yards long and stretched into a circle by one or two boats to catch fish in the middle.

Haul seining is usually done at night because that’s when targeted species swim toward the shore in search of food.

The state commission will vote on the proposed regulations this month.

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