After three decades of managing how others catch fish in Virginia, Jack Travelstead is looking forward to spending more time casting lines of his own.
“We have a 200-acre farm in Vermont with a nice pond in the front yard full of yellow perch, and some beaver ponds on the back end of the property with brook trout, and I’m pretty excited about getting up there,” Travelstead said.
In January, Travelstead retired after 33 years at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. He served as the agency’s first chief of fisheries management from 1984 until being appointed commissioner of the Marine Resources Commission by Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2012. The commissioner leads the eight-member governor-appointed commission and manages a staff of 148. The VMRC is responsible for resource management in the tidal waters and bottomlands of Virginia as well as the enforcement of marine safety and regulations.
During his time at the VMRC, Travelstead oversaw controversial management actions that helped bring back striped bass and blue crabs from the brink of collapse; helped transform the depleted oyster fishery into a surging aquaculture enterprise; and played a role in enacting the first-ever harvest limits on menhaden. He also was on deck when Virginia implemented limited access and limited entry fishing regulations and numerous gear restrictions. Despite those tough decisions, Travelstead’s colleagues, watermen and representatives of the fishing industry uniformly praise him as a consummate professional and “a Virginia gentleman,” regardless of whether they agreed with positions he took.
One of the first acts of the 2014 Virginia state legislature was to pass Joint Resolution 48 which stated that Travelstead’s “knowledge, vision, and stewardship resulted in sustainable fisheries and remarkable improvements to the Commonwealth’s natural resources, particularly to finfish, blue crab, and oyster stocks.”
Travelstead earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Old Dominion University and his master’s in marine science from the College of William and Mary. During graduate school, he became attracted to the policy side of the equation. “I kind of figured out I really wasn’t that good a scientist, that I enjoyed working more with people than with fish,” Travelstead explained. A year after graduation, he landed what he called, “his dream job” working at VMRC.
He started under a federal grant as a liaison between the agency and the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council. He was often a proxy for Virginia’s commissioner of marine resources at council meetings. The council is responsible for developing management plans for fisheries in federal waters more than 3 miles off the mid-Atlantic coast.
Bill Pruitt, Virginia’s marine resource commissioner from 1983 to 2006, said, “At the time, there was no fisheries management division” at the VMRC. The state required a study to determine how such a division might be organized, and “Jack recommended that fisheries management in Virginia be based on the 12 principles of the Magnuson Act.”
The Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, originally passed in 1976, is the primary federal law that governs fisheries management in the United States. When it came time to select a leader for the new division, Pruitt said, “Everyone knew the right person for the job was Jack.”
Travelstead also represented Virginia at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the state-federal council that regulates migratory marine species in state waters; those within 3 miles of shore. In the early years, Travelstead explained, there were a lot of good ideas generated about how to manage failing species like striped bass, but no political will to back the necessary — and tough — decisions.
“That all changed in 1989,” Travelstead said, “when the Atlantic Striped Bass Act was passed.” The act required states to abide by the ASMFC rules, “and when that worked so well, they adopted the Atlantic Coastal Fishery Management Act that applied the same rules to all of the species.”
Bob Beal worked with Travelstead during the 17 years he has worked for the ASMFC. Now ASMFC’s executive director, Beal recalled how much he learned from just watching Travelstead. “He was always really prepared for the meetings. He knew all the positions. He didn’t speak a lot, but when he did, people listened.”
“After two or three hours of discussion,” Beal said, he was always good at boiling it all down to a few simple options.” Travelstead was architect of many “reasonable and durable solutions,” to fisheries management issues. Though the definition of reasonable is always in the eye of the beholder, solutions that Travelstead offered “were always good for the resource,” Beal said.
Rob O’Reilly, now the VMRC’s fisheries chief, said that Travelstead “really had a good grasp of the science that went into forming the management decisions, and I can tell you, it’s not straightforward and easy to understand sometimes.”
John Bull, now acting VMRC commissioner, worked with Travelstead for seven years, first as public relations officer, then for the last two years as his deputy. “He could just glide from issue to issue,” Bull said. “You never saw him angry or upset.”
Jack spent his entire life listening with an open mind, and this earned him tremendous respect, especially with the watermen, who always felt that Jack was working for them, too,” Bull said.
O’Reilly agreed. “Jack was just as comfortable at helping out fishermen who were in situations where they lost licenses or needed assistance — to working with the highest officials in the federal or state government, and he would switch his conversation to match whatever needed to be said to the particular person he was working with.”
Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Waterman’s Association, said: “We had a real good working relationship. We didn’t agree on everything, but we could always sit down and talk about it. Jack, he told you what his position was, and it made sense why he had to take the position that he took. But he always understood where I was coming from at the same time. We came together in the middle in a lot of situations.”
Pete Nixon, another waterman and president of the Lower Chesapeake Bay Waterman’s Association, agreed. “A lot of people would complain about the regulations, and over the years, Jack and I — we got into some ‘discussions’ — but we always settled it. What I learned to do — and Jack did, too — was communicate.”
Pruitt said that Travelstead’s background in marine science gave him “the ability to communicate in ordinary English” the science behind management decisions and regulations.
During Travelstead’s tenure as fisheries chief, Pruitt said, “We also created the advisory committees, a system that’s still in place… Jack was at every one of those meetings.”
At one meeting about four years ago, Smith recalled, “I kind of got upset…and wanted to know when were we going to stop looking at short-term problems and start looking at a long-term fishery management plan?” Travelsted’s response was to meet with a small group from the industry to explore what would help sustain the watermen in the fishery. The outgrowth of those meetings became the industry-based Blue Crab Advisory Panel.
“Last year we all sat down together — the regulatory folks , the scientists, and the industry — and for the first time, it looks like we are all working together for a long-term sustainable fishery…and Jack was instrumental in making that happen,” Smith said.
At the request of the panel, the VMRC instituted electronic reporting that makes it possible for watermen to track in real time how their catch stacks up against the limits, a practice that works well for watermen and the commission. Smith said, “We accomplished a lot while Jack was at the VMRC.”
Reflecting on what’s ahead for fisheries managers in the future, Travelstead said, “It’s much more difficult to manage a rebuilt stock than it is to manage one that is in trouble…when you’ve got an overfished population, everybody knows what needs to be done, you cut the fishery back and allow (the stock) to rebuild, but once it’s rebuilt, everyone starts fighting.” The fights are over quotas, seasons, rules for gear. “And I think its just going to get more and more complicated.”
Although Travelstead described his years at the VMRC as “so fun it didn’t really seem like work,” he also admitted that there were some disappointments. “We were never really able to do much for the anadromous species, the shad and river herring. Those stocks are still in terrible shape.” There has been a moratorium on fishing for American shad in Virginia since 1994 and river herring since 2012.
Travelstead said that he thinks of his greatest contributions, not in terms of species recovery or management plans, but in terms of people, specifically the current staff at the VMRC. “The people are the greatest asset that we have, he said, “Most of the current staff, I either hired directly or played a role in their hiring.
“I guess folks would expect me to say, “Oh we’ve recovered the striped bass stocks, or we had some success with blue crabs,” Travelstead said. “Striped bass can be here today and gone tomorrow, but I think having the right people to make the right decisions for the long term is much more important.”
Kim Huskey, executive director of the Virginia Seafood Council, summed it up: “Jack Travelstead understood the dynamics of multi-species management, knew the important differences between the Upper and Lower Bay and cared passionately about the survival of every species. He was an asset to the Virginia seafood industry and will be missed.”
Meanwhile, Travelstead will be enjoying some freshwater fishing, a hobby since he grew up in Kentucky. “I always enjoyed freshwater best, but I didn’t say that out loud to the fishermen,” he admitted. “I did my fair share of saltwater fishing — but I never really enjoyed it the way I enjoyed freshwater fishing.”
In the times to come, one hopes that Jack Travelstead’s legacy of decision-making based on sound science and the combined wisdom of fishermen, industry and regulators will keep the VMRC on an even keel in any tumultuous waters to come.