A measure that gives fish conservation efforts from Maine to Florida the kind of legal clout credited with restoring striped bass stocks in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast has become law.

The Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act will require East Coast states to enact management plans for “interjurisdictional fisheries” — those stocks which migrate across state borders — that have been developed by the Atlantic State’s Marine Fisheries Commission. Any state that fails to enact conservation measures will risk a federally enforced moratorium.

The legislation is aimed at managing fish stocks, from their spawning grounds through their migratory routes, to ensure that no species is fished beyond sustainable levels and that no jurisdiction’s actions impact a particular species to the detriment of fishermen elsewhere.

“It is essential that a fish stock be managed comprehensively throughout its range,” said Bill Goldsborough, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist specializing in fisheries, who applauded the measure as “a tremendous step forward.”

“What we’ve had historically is stocks being managed parochially and haphazardly by any number of jurisdictions throughout their range,” Goldsborough said. “This promises to treat fish stocks uniformly in terms of management throughout their range. And that promises tremendous dividends in terms of healthy populations.”

Similar bills have repeatedly failed in recent years, and the bill Congress approved in late November was weakened from the version introduced earlier in the year.

But supporters were still optimistic it could help reverse populations declines for a number of species. John Dunnigan, ASMFC executive director, hailed it as “the most significant piece of federal fisheries legislation in a long time.”

He and others predicted that the law could quickly impact stocks of summer flounder, bluefish, and weakfish, which have suffered considerable declines over the past decade. All three species are found in the Bay.

“Weakfish is probably the resource that’s in the worst condition right now, but scientists tell us that if we can take some cooperative action relatively soon … we could see some relatively quick turnaround,” Dunnigan said.

Goldsborough said shad — another Bay species that has suffered sharp declines — would also benefit from the measure, but added that the shad management plan “needs some work” to strengthen harvest restrictions along the East Coast. Shad fishing is banned in the Bay, but some have blamed fishing pressure outside the Chesapeake for keeping the population from making a sustained comeback.

Under the law, the ASMFC has 90 days to determine a schedule by which states must come into compliance with existing management plans. ASMFC could give states up to a year from the end of the 90-day period to comply with the plans. The law requires the commission to hold four public hearings before adopting a plan.

The ASMFC is a multistate compact made up of representatives from 15 coastal states, the District of Columbia, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although it has written management plans covering 19 species, most have never been fully implemented. Many plans are met by strong opposition from fishermen, creating political pressure to put off implementation. When some states fail to fully implement plans, others become reluctant to enact restrictions on their own fishermen.

By some estimates, as few as three of the commission’s plans have been fully implemented. Dunnigan, though, said the wording of some plans is vague, making it difficult to determine whether states are in full compliance.

Proponents of the bill have long argued that stronger measures were needed to protect East Coast fish stocks, many of which are in trouble. A 1991 National Marine Fisheries Service report found that of 28 fish species in the Northeast Atlantic with major recreational and commercial importance, 19 were overexploited and eight were at their maximum level of exploitation.

Under the new law, patterned after the 1984 Striped Bass Conservation Act, the commission must continuously review implementation of its management plans and report its findings to the Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service. If the ASMFC reports that a state is not in compliance, the secretary may impose a moratorium on all fishing for that species within the offending state’s waters until it comes into compliance.

Supporters of the law contend this will be a powerful incentive for states to comply with the management plans. Andrew Loftus, a research specialist with the nonprofit Sport Fishing Institute and a member of the Bay Program’s Citizens Advisory Committee, said the chances of a moratorium ever being needed were “minimal.”

The threat of a moratorium in the Striped Bass Act forced all coastal states to impose sharp curbs on rockfish harvests during the mid-to-late 1980s, which included self-imposed moratoriums in Maryland and Virginia. Those conservation efforts have been credited with a dramatic rebound for a species that had hit historic lows only a decade ago. This year’s juvenile striped bass survey in Maryland — considered the most accurate indicator of future rockfish stocks along the coast — hit an all-time high.

But the bill passed by Congress is weaker than the Striped Bass Act. Opposition from Sens. Jesse A. Helms and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina — where commercial fishermen have been concerned about the legislation’s impact on the weakfish harvest — curtailed the role of the Department of the Interior.

The bill originally required that the Interior secretary be consulted regarding the imposition and removal of a moratorium. The final version of the bill stripped the Interior secretary of any moratorium role.

The legislation still allows the Interior — which contains the Fish and Wildlife Service — to support fisheries management efforts through such things as research, management planning, habitat conservation, and data collection. “The Secretary of the Interior still has a role to play under this legislation,” Dunnigan said. “In fact, they have a stronger role to play under this legislation than they do under any other fisheries legislation that exists. This bill gives them an opportunity, if they want to take it, to carve out as strong a role in all coastal fisheries as they want to”

But others, like Goldsborough and Loftus, wonder whether the department will want to be active in planning and research when it has been stripped from a key part of the enforcement effort. The Fish and Wildlife Service played an important role in the striped bass restoration, doing much of the research on the fish and conducting a massive tagging program, which helped biologists monitor populations and better understand migrations. The service also has considerable ability, if needed, to enforce a moratorium.

“One has to ask, if they are only tangentially associated with this legislation, how far up will it be placed on their funding priorities in the future?” said Loftus, who helped write the original version of the bill. “So I think the elimination of the Department of the Interior was a blow to the bill, but I think it will still survive.”

The legislation had been supported by most East Coast states. Virginia, though, was opposed, with officials expressing concern both about the interference of the federal government in the management of coastal fisheries — historically a state issue — and about the cost of implementing the management plans.

The bill does authorize some money to help implement the plans — $3 million in fiscal year 1994, $5 million in 1995, and $7 million in 1996. But authorizing money is different than actually appropriating it, and the budget for the 1994 fiscal year — which began Oct. 1 — contained no money for the program. With new federal spending caps, observers say it is unlikely that money will be made available unless it is diverted from other domestic spending programs.

That may be difficult, Loftus said, because fisheries typically play “second fiddle” to other programs in Washington. “I think the chances for getting money appropriated for this depends a great deal on the support Congress hears from their constituents for this program,” he said.

Fishery management plans not only control catches and fishing equipment, but also require states to monitor fish stocks and collect data about catches and other information that will help manage the fishery. Meeting the obligations of just the Striped Bass Act, for example, has cost individual states hundreds of thousands of dollars. Though many believe the additional plans — which generally contain fewer specific requirements than the striped bass plan — will be less costly, the law is still expected to cost the state resource agencies millions of dollars.

“The states have never made any bones about the fact that they do not have the resources today that are required to carry out an effective program,” Dunnigan said. “So somehow, from some source, some resources are going to have to be made available. It’s like a lot of things, it’s only going to work as well as we can all afford to make it work.”

ASMFC Management Plans

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has developed management plans for these species:

  • Striped bass
  • Bluefish
  • Weakfish
  • Spotted sea trout
  • Summer flounder
  • Atlantic menhaden
  • American shad / river herring
  • Red drum
  • Croaker
  • Spot
  • Sturgeon
  • Winter flounder
  • Hard clam
  • Interstate shellfish transport
  • Spanish mackerel
  • Lobster
  • Northern shrimp