Virginia lawmakers have decided to remain in the East Coast organization that manages migratory fish stocks, at least for one more year.
Last year, in response to a federal law that forced states to abide by fishing restrictions set by the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission or risk a federally enforced fishing moratorium, the General Assembly voted to withdraw from the commission effective this July.
The ASMFC is a compact of the 15 East Coast states from Maine to Florida that cooperatively develops management plans to protect stocks of fish that migrate across state lines.
Critics said those plans were often ignored, leading to the overfishing of stocks as they swam along the coast. The 1993 legislation, patterned after a law that is credited for restoring the striped bass, allowed the federal government to impose a moratorium on any state that failed to follow an ASMFC plan.
Virginia lawmakers argued that Congress acted unconstitutionally by granting regulatory power to an interstate commission not subject to federal or state procedures providing opportunities for public participation.
But Del. Harvey Morgan said he introduced a bill to repeal the state's withdrawal threat because the ASMFC had "enhanced significantly" opportunities for public participation in the past year. "I have been very favorably impressed with the way the commission's been working," said Morgan, one of three officials representing Virginia on the commission.
Morgan, though, said there were not enough votes to repeal last year's legislation, so it was changed to extend the withdrawal deadline by a year. "A lot of people feel very strongly about this, that it is an unconstitutional and that we should not stand still for it," he said.
Morgan said he thought it was in the state's best interest to stay on as a member of the commission because it would probably be bound by its management plans, anyway.
"We actually didn't think [last year's bill] would pass," Morgan said. "We just thought we would be sending a message, and that was it. When the bill passed, we were surprised, and I was personally a little alarmed because I didn't know if we should pull out. I felt if we pulled out, we would still be governed by the commission but just wouldn't have a vote."