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Should Virginia Secede from the Menhaden Union?

Secession is in the air once again in Virginia as a state senator has introduced a bill that would withdraw the Commonwealth from the union of states that oversees fishery management along the coast.

Virginia State Senator Richard Stuart’s bill would separate Virginia from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a consortium of states from Maine to Florida that oversees the management and harvest of 24 species of fish ranging from flounder to stripers. Among those fish is the menhaden, a baitfish that is an essential part of the food chain for game fish and whose population most commissioners (and conservationists) believe may be threatened by overfishing.

Reed’s district includes the East Coast’s largest menhaden fishing port, seems not so sure.

In Boston in late 2011, the ASMFC commissioners voted overwhelmingly to curtail commercial landings of menhaden by as much as 37 percent over 2010 harvest levels. This marked the first time the ASMFC has voted to decrease the menhaden harvest. Why the change? The commission’s most recent stock assessment found that menhaden stocks, in steady decline for the past half-century, were now at a historic low, and that although menhaden are apparently producing enough eggs to supplement the stock, those eggs are not becoming juvenile menhaden, much to the consternation of researchers.

Conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy and consortia like the Menhaden Coalition, and the Herring Alliance, as well as groups of recreational anglers like Menhaden Defenders, have for years lobbied for more conservative menhadden harvest levels. They believe that the current commercial harvest levels could push the stock past the point of no return, which would affect countless species of fish and sea birds.

Senator Stuart disagrees: “I think the environmental community has lobbied the ASMFC so much, they have abandoned their own science.”

Stuart defended his proposed legislation, saying, “I drafted my bill to demonstrate to the ASMFC that Virginia will not tolerate ignoring the best available data on menhaden. According to ASMFC’s own science, the coastal population of menhaden is healthy.”

Stuart also believes that “the recent decision by the ASMFC in Boston to curtail menhaden harvest so drastically reveals that some states are cutting back Virginia’s menhaden harvest to bolster their own populations.”

Is Stuart correct in his assertions? And should Virginia leave the ASMFC?

First, the science to which the senator refers may be found in the ASMFC management plan,but it never describes the menhaden stock as “healthy.” And indeed, the stock has never been lower than it is right now. Second, the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act (1993) stipulates that Virginia will still have to abide by the ASMFC’s menhaden management plan even if it withdraws from the commission. Further, should Virginia voluntarily withdraw from the ASMFC, other member states could decide to redistribute Virginia’s harvest quotas among themselves.

Let us assume that the Virginia legislature passes Stuart’s bill into law. What’s next? Initially the ASMFC would undoubtedly attempt to bring Virginia into compliance. And if the Old Dominion refused? The ASMFC could ask the US Secretary of Commerce to shut down the Virginia menhaden fishery completely, spelling disaster for the Commonwealth’s economy and marking the end of Virginia’s commercial menhaden fishery. For obvious reasons, no state has yet withdrawn from the ASMFC.

Without a doubt, Senator Stuart has a vested interest in opposing the ASMFC’s latest moves on menhaden: His district includes Reedville, home to Omega Protein’s East Coast operations. Omega is North America’s largest commercial menhaden harvester.

It doesn’t follow, however, that Stuart is an enemy of waterway conservation: Rather, Stuart is and has always been an avid sportsman whose actions demonstrate that he cares deeply for Virginia’s natural resources. He recently led the charge, for example, to pass legislation to significantly decrease phosphorus in fertilizers, which fuels the ominous “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay. Indeed, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation honored him as the 2011 Virginia Legislator of the Year in recognition of this work.

It is never easy to represent conflicting interests, and it’s usually impossible to please all interested parties. Senator Stuart represents a district that cannot be happy about the ASMFC’s latest actions on menhaden. But in this case, it’s hard to see how his proposed legislation can do anything but exacerbate the inevitable pain that Virginia’s commercial menhaden fishery foresees. He could win this battle with his bold volley but Virginia will end up losing the war.

Beau Beasley is an award-winning conservation writer and the author of Fly Fishing Virginia and Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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