Under a bill overwhelmingly approved by the state General Assembly and signed by Gov. George Allen, Virginia next year will withdraw from the commission that jointly manages fish species that migrate along the Atlantic coast.
The action targets legislation passed by Congress in 1993 that gave the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the federal government more powerful roles in managing migratory fish species.
The bill was sponsored by Del. W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., D-Westmoreland County, who has raised constitutional objections to the federal law. The legislation calls for the state to withdraw from the commission July 1, 1996, allowing the General Assembly a chance to review its action next winter.
Critics say the Virginia vote is a blow to cooperative fisheries management. Proponents of the 1993 law argue that joint fisheries management is needed to keep individual states from taking so many fish that they deplete the entire coastal stock, as happened to the striped bass in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"If Virginia wants to send a statement, then this will do it., but I'm not sure how it will be received or what it will result in," said Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We have been poorly managing those fisheries, with all the states acting parochially. Recent history has proven that the states simply have to work together in a coordinated fashion or we are not going to have any fisheries."
The ASMFC was formed as a voluntary compact in 1942 by the 15 East Coast states to make recommendations about fishery issues. Like all state compacts, it was approved by Congress. But Murphy said Congress acted unilaterally in 1993 to make ASMFC recommendations mandatory. In fact, he said, such a change should have to be ratified by all compact participants.
"Although the words of the compact were not changed, the compact was given a different meaning," Murphy said. "To me, it was an indirect amendment of the compact itself. It seems to me this is a very fundamental issue relating to compacts and their status. If the federal government can come in, once states have joined voluntarily into a compact - it seems to me it opens up every compact to unilateral federal changes."
For example, he said, the federal government could just as easily pass a law saying that the fishing regulations established by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission -- a compact between Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia -- were only voluntary.
Although Murphy said he supports strong fisheries conservation measures, he said "the ends do not justify the means. It can come back to us to hurt us as well as help us."
Each state has three ASMFCÊrepresentatives: its top fisheries official, a designee of the governor and a legislator. The panel has worked for years to write fishery management plans, but until the 1993 law, there was no mechanism to enforce them.
"The ASMFC worked on a relatively voluntary basis up until the early 1980s," Goldsborough said. "Essentially what happened was the states got together and agreed on management measures and then went home and state politics took over and the agreed upon measures never got fully implemented."
Of the 19 management plans that had been written by the ASMFC by the time the federal law was passed, only two or three had been fully implemented. As a result, several important species, including weakfish, summer flounder and bluefish, were in decline.
Proponents wanted a stronger federal role to remove state politics from management plan implementation. Their model for the 1993 law was 1984 legislation that allowed the federal government to enforce the management plan for striped bass. Though the species went into a sharp decline beginning in the late 1970s, several states refused to enact conservation measures called for in the management plan.
The striped bass law allowed the federal government to impose a moratorium on striped bass fishing in any state that failed to comply with the ASMFC plan. The law is credited for the comeback of the striped bass, which this year was declared fully recovered by the ASMFC.
Murphy agreed "that may be true." But, he argued, the long-term solution is to have state and local officials establish sound conservation policies. "The people who serve at the state and local level are going to have to step up to the plate and say, we're willing to make these tough decisions and we're not going to keep passing the buck off to the federal government to do it," Murphy said.
Virginia fisheries officials opposed the 1993 legislation, saying it infringed on traditional state powers to manage their own fisheries. Murphy's position has been backed by the Allen administration.
"We in Virginia support sound resource management based on good science," said Kathleen Kilpatrick, a policy analyst in the office of state Natural Resources Secretary Becky Norton Dunlop. "We certainly support the concept of getting together on a cooperative, voluntary basis, to share information and seek common solutions to common problems. And that, as I understand it, was the mission of the ASMFC. It has gone very far afield from that."
Fishing limits placed on Virginia by ASMFC management plans -- particularly those for striped bass -- have irritated fishermen in the state. Last October, Allen criticized those restrictions at the Chesapeake Executive Council meeting -- which sets policy for the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program -- and vowed to "fight for our rights."
"We feel that we have competent expertise to manage our fisheries wisely," he said. "We do not need intrusive federal mandates that are based on politics rather than science."
Murphy's original legislation called for the state to leave the commission this year, but it was amended to delay that action until 1996. "We supported that amendment," Kilpatrick said. "We felt that it would provide more time for these issues to be resolved in a way that will preserve our membership in the ASMFC."
She did not say exactly what changes could be made to preserve Virginia's membership but indicated that all options should be explored to return the ASMFC to its original mission.
Some Virginia fishermen have complained that the state is outvoted on ASMFC management plans by northern states. Some have privately suggested that ASMFC could appease Virginia by changing its voting procedures.
ASMFC officials say they have heard nothing yet from Virginia. "We're not getting a lot of information," said Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the ASMFC "We've had no discussions at all. There will be [discussions] over the next many months, but nothing has started right now."
She said Virginia could not fully withdraw from the commission until Jan. 1, 1997, because ASMFC members are required to give six months notice to leave.
If Virginia left the ASMFC, it would still be bound by its management plans under the 1993 law. But some fear that Virginia's action could cause other states to withdraw as well, threatening the survival of the commission.
Murphy said if Virginia leaves the commission and the federal government challenges the state's fishery management, the constitutional issue would have to be resolved in court.