The state of Connecticut recently dropped a portion of a lawsuit that environmentalists said weakened fishery management along the coast and threatened many species important to the Chesapeake Bay.
The state in March amended a suit challenging federal authority to regulate summer flounder by removing a portion that sought to have the 1993 Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act declared unconstitutional.
That law gave the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, which represents all East Coast states and the federal government, authority to set mandatory catch limits on near shore fish that migrate across state lines, including many Bay species such as striped bass and shad.
“Rockfish don’t recognize state lines,” said Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which last fall intervened in the case to protect the 1993 law. “The act was created to end contradictory management practices. We are heartened that Connecticut has agreed not to challenge the law.”
Offshore fisheries management in the Atlantic is divided between the ASMFC, which handles migratory species that live within three miles of shore, and three regional Fishery Management Councils which deal with species that are primarily caught beyond three miles.
The summer flounder catch limit, which resulted in sharp reductions for Connecticut, was set primarily by the Mid-Atlantic Council, in consultation with the ASMFC, because some summer flounder are caught closer to shore.
Connecticut, which is represented on the New England Council, contended it did not have a voice in the decision.
It filed suit, challenging the constitutionality of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, as well as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which set up the regional fishery councils. The state contended that laws forced the state to participate in a federal programs without its agreement, and gave states with competing interests power to set quotas for Connecticut fishermen.
The CBF, along with a local Connecticut conservation group, intervened, contending that Connecticut did have a voice in the quotas through the ASMFC.
As a result, Connecticut agreed to drop the portion of the suit that dealt with the ASMFC, but is continuing with the portion challenging the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the regional councils.
The CBF contends that the ability to enforce ASMFC management plans is critical to prevent individual states from taking more than their share of a species. “To have scraped the act just to increase flounder quotas in Connecticut would have been one of the worst examples of throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Goldsborough said.
The ASMFC management plans were often ignored until the 1993 law gave the U.S. Department of Commerce the authority to close fisheries in states that did not comply with the commission’s plans.
The act was based on earlier legislation aimed at protecting striped bass that forced states to follow strict catch limits, including a catch moratorium, in the 1980s. The legislation was credited with helping the rockfish population recover from record low levels in the early 1980s.