A change in Virginia regulations that allows commercial fishermen to keep some of the shad they accidentally catch has raised concern about its potential impact on efforts to rebuild populations of the migratory fish.

In January, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted to allow commercial fishermen targeting striped bass to keep and sell up to 10 shad a day which become entangled in their gill nets.

That action was limited to areas between the mouths of the James, York and Rappahannock rivers, and the lower limit of the spawning grounds in each river. The action recognized the spawning grounds as a sanctuary.

But it raised concerns that the ability to keep shad “bycatch” could lure more commercial fishermen onto the water. Shad sell for about $5 each. Fishermen argued that it was wasteful to toss back fish that were already dead.

“The theory that makes this acceptable to [VMRC] staff is that you are simply converting dead fish to a marketable product,” said Jack Travelstead, head of the commission’s fisheries division.

“The concern of staff is that you might add new fishermen that didn’t fish there to begin with so every dead fish is actually a new dead fish,” he added. “Or you might entice fishermen to set more gear than they historically have, so they are adding effort to the fishery to ensure they are harvesting their bycatch.”

Worries were heightened at the commission’s February meeting when—to the dismay of scientists and environmentalists—it amended the January action, and opened the spawning grounds as well.

At the February hearing, John Wyatt, an upriver fishermen and an officer with the Association of Independent Watermen, said environmental concerns were overstated.

“We are seeking striped bass and we catch shad as bycatch,” Wyatt said. “If we don’t keep them, they’re going to be wasted. What good is throwing them back dead?”

Wyatt also said recreational anglers target shad, and probably have a larger impact on stocks than commercial fishers. Under state rules, anglers must release any shad they hook.

The commission sought to limit the impact on the spawning grounds by restricting the taking of shad in that area to five fish per day. Also, only commercial fishermen who actively fished in those areas last year—about 10 in all—can keep the shad.

American shad have been a prized fish in Virginia since colonial days. In fact, an annual political event involves shad planking—where the fish are slowly smoked on oak planks before being eaten by a bipartisan group of politicians. In recent years, though, they’ve had to import their shad from North Carolina.

The catch of shad has been banned in Virginia since 1994 as populations of the fish—once the most valuable commercial catch in the Chesapeake—bottomed out.

Only three years ago, the commission voted to reject a permit for Newport News’ controversial King William Reservoir because of the potential impact a water intake for the project might have on spawning shad in the Mattaponi River, a tributary of the York. The action was later reversed—under heavy political pressure—when Newport News modified the project.

Rebuilding the shad population has been a priority of the state-federal Bay Program, with restoration efforts taking place throughout the watershed, including the stocking of hatchery-reared fish in rivers and the removal of dams that served as barriers to historic spawning grounds. Because each river has its own distinct shad population, the Virginia action is not expected to affect other Bay tributaries.

Gary Martel, director of the fisheries division of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said in a letter to the VMRC that he was “uneasy” about the action “due to the possibility of opening the door to increased harvest.”

Martel said state and federal agencies spend more than a half million dollars a year on shad restoration in Virginia. The vast majority of the stocked shad larvae die because of predation or other causes before they return to spawn four or five years later. As a result, it costs the restoration effort about $75 for each fish that returns to the spawning grounds, he said.

“Allowing American shad harvest in and above the spawning grounds will result in increased mortality of hatchery shad and a subsequent loss in natural reproduction and stock recovery in the upper river reaches,” Martel said.

John Olney, a fisheries biologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who conducts shad surveys in the rivers, said he was hopeful from early reports that the action would have minimal impact on the population.

But he said he was disappointed that the catch was allowed in the spawning areas, especially after the commission had set that area aside as a no-catch area in January. “To establish that spawning ground sanctuary was a progressive step in shad conservation,” he said. “We had a spawning sanctuary for striped bass. To extend that for American shad was an important decision. That is where my disappointment came from.”

He also called allowing the catch in the York River “problematic.” While his surveys show the shad populations are increasing in the James and Rappahannock rivers, they have trended down in the York for several years.

“In the case of a stock that is in recovery and declining, which is the probable condition in the York River, we really shouldn’t be talking about how to allow bycatch,” Olney said. “We probably should be talking how to reduce bycatch mortality.”

Olney also said it was wrong to assume that all fish caught in gill nets would die. “There is high mortality of gill-netted fishes,” he said. “But they don’t all die.”

Recreational anglers can fish for shad in portions of Virginia’s rivers, but they are required to throw back any fish they hook. The catch-and-release fishery also results in fish mortality, although at a lower rate than in commercial gill nets.

Chris Moore, a fisheries biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the principles for recreational and commercial fisheries should be the same.

“You are still asking both groups to do the same thing,” he said. “You are asking them to throw all the fish back, no matter what.”

Moore also expressed concern that since the VMRC approved keeping the shad bycatch, the requests for commercial striped bass license sharply increased. It was unclear whether all those licenses would be used or whether fishermen were seeking them for potential use in future years. Meanwhile, it creates the potential for an increased catch, he said.

Commercial fishermen note that keeping bycatch was allowed in both Maryland and on the Potomac River. Maryland allows commercial watermen to retain two shad as bycatch per day, but only for personal use. The Potomac River Fisheries Commission allows fishermen to keep a bushel of shad a day as bycatch, which amounts to 10 to 12 fish.

As part of the action taken by VMRC, fishermen must report on their bycatch of shad each week.

“In the event that this thing suddenly took off, we would get back to the commission and ask them to slow it down,” Travelstead said. “I don’t anticipate that is going to happen, but just in case, we have that provision there.”

The Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates migratory fish species along the East Coast, only approved the Virginia bycatch fishery for 2006. No decision will be made about continuing the fishery until fishery managers evaluate the impact of this year’s action, Travelstead said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.