When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) was created, it had limited enforcement authority. This meant that every State had the independent option to ignore or comply with the decisions of the governing body. Due to this regulatory ineffectiveness, in the early 1990’s the States worked cooperatively with Congress and passed the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cooperative Management Act (Atlantic Coastal Act) requiring all states to obey regulations developed by the ASMFC or be subject to punitive action for that fishery in their state waters.

It has been this threat of punitive Federal action that has kept and made fisheries regulations enforceable. In fact, this forced compliance was primarily responsible for the final rebuilding of striped bass.

It has been prophetically said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Because of a recent procedural ruling, it is now possible that we have returned to the old days of vested states interests trumping the collective wishes of the Commission. New Jersey came up with a plan (for Summer flounder management) that they maintained was equivalent to the one developed by the ASMFC. The ASMFC Technical Committee disagreed, and the member states voted to find New Jersey out of compliance and thus subject to penalty.

New Jersey followed procedural rules and appealed this decision to the Secretary of Commerce. Why the Secretary of Commerce? Because that is the process written into the Atlantic Coastal Act. In the new Washington spirit of deregulation, unsurprisingly, the Secretary decided the New Jersey plan was OK thereby undermining the unanimous (minus NJ) vote of the ASMFC.

We are not picking on New Jersey here. They followed the procedural rules. We are simply pointing out that, to our knowledge, this redress action has not been employed before now. No longer is a vote by the ASMFC traditionally the final word in regulating fisheries that fall under their jurisdiction. The regulatory or procedural dynamic has changed.

Some may applaud this decision as a victory for states’ rights. Politics aside, it does put the camel’s nose under the tent of potentially deregulating all cooperative interstate fisheries management. This unilateral ruling by the Secretary establishes an ominous procedural precedent. Without a federal hammer to require the states to accept the decisions of a multi-state commission such as the ASMFC, the regulatory authority of all multi-state compacts is in jeopardy.

Going forward, any member State of the ASMFC that does not like the regulation decisions collectively made by the ASMFC can appeal to the Secretary of Commerce and stand a chance of having their own management plan approved. In other words, potentially we are now back to the dark ages of fisheries management when each state could, with impunity, make its own selfish management decisions even when dealing with migratory species that recognize no state lines of jurisdiction.


This new deregulated twist to what has been an established, procedural management precedent for nearly 25 years has ominous overtones. We are dangerously flirting with the return of the Wild West, when it comes to undermining coordinated and cooperative fisheries management between States.

Independent states behavior is what nearly ruined the wild striped fishery forever. Hopefully, saner minds will prevail and stripers will not repeat and be forced to undergo the history of state-by-state selfish exploitation. However, as long as they are managed as a commercial product each State will be out to get as much value from the fishery as they possibly can which will most certainly once again lead to over harvesting.