The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will take public comments in September on a proposal to extend the current cap on menhaden fishing in the Bay for an additional five years.

The action was requested by Virginia officials at the commission's August meeting in order to accommodate its legislative process. The Virginia General Assembly, which has responsibility for regulating the menhaden catch, meets from January through March.

Fishery officials said the legislature needs to take up the issue in its 2010 session to keep the cap from expiring.

The cap has been in place since 2006 and will expire next year. ASMFC, which regulates migratory fish stocks along the East Coast, imposed the cap because of concerns voiced by recreational fishermen and others that the commercial fleet based in Reedville, VA, was catching too many menhaden.

They said too few of the small, oily fish were left for predators, such as striped bass, to feed upon.

Although the ASMFC's stock assessment shows that menhaden are not overfished coastwide, it imposed a five-year cap of 122,740 metric tons for catches in the Bay while studies were done to determine whether the Chesapeake was suffering from "localized depletion" of menhaden.

Those studies are still going on, prompting the call for the extension.

Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, said he was disappointed that the commission's proposal calls for extending the cap at the current catch limit.

The original cap was based on the average catch during the previous five years. If the most recent five years of catches were used for the new cap, he said, it would be substantially less, as catches in the Bay have declined.

"The only option they offered the public is to continue with the existing cap at its current levels rather than adding any other conservation measures," Hinman said. "The public was left with a thumbs up or a thumbs down decision, which was disappointing. It makes one question whether they are really going to move into ecosystem-based management."

The commission will take comments on the proposal through Oct. 1 and is planning a series of public hearings. Information is available at www.asmfc.org under "Breaking News."