Concerns that rock fish, also called striped bass, number remain low led state regulators along the Atlantic coast to reject lowering the triggers that spark cuts in the numbers that can be caught.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted last week to keep looking at adult fish death rates every year, instead of averaging results over longer periods when considering whether to tighten rules about the catch, which supports a multi-million-dollar recreational fishing industry in Virginia as well as a major commercial fishery.

It also revised another trigger, which pegs action regulating the catch to data annual data on juvenile fish, making this more sensitive to fish counts showing low numbers of less-than-year-old fish.

The commission also decided if either of those triggers trips, it can act tighten its rules for catching and keeping striped bass.

Keeping the annual trigger for fish mortality matters because while adult fish can live for 20 years, only about one in three or four years is good for spawning juveniles. Looking at averages over several years means one big year for the spawn could mask the real trend in total population.

“Striped bass like cool wet springs for spawning,” said Chris Moore, senior ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The latest annual survey of rock fish population found an average of 6.3 juvenile fish in each haul of a seine net in the James, York and Rappahannock rivers, down from 13.89 in 2020. The 10-year average is 7.77, and the 2021 figure is considered to be average. A parallel survey in Maryland waters showed below-average numbers.

Virginia’s rock fish regulations are stricter than most states — in 2020, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission canceled a plan to let anglers keep trophy-sized striped bass, citing increasing concerns about overfishing. The tripping of the fish mortality trigger in 2018 led the commission to order an 18% cut in the coastwide striped bass catch for that year.

The catch actually declined by 28%, prompting some fishing interests and state regulators to ask if the process is too strict.

Conservationists argued that the lower-than-targeted catch was more about COVID-19 keeping people at home than how the fish were faring.

The commission also decided to limit states’ abilities to set their own “conservation equivalency” approaches to meeting coast-wide catch limits when fish populations are low.

It also brushed off suggestions to lower its population targets for rock fish or to raise the calculation of when the number of fish is low enough to put a population at risk of collapse.

The Chesapeake Bay is a focus for regulation since some 70% of all stripers up and down the coast are spawned there.