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Published on HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com (HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com)
Don't let watermen pack the fishing regulation panel

For decades, Virginia's waters were essentially managed by commercial fishermen for commercial fishermen. They caught what they wanted, when they wanted. They ignored the warning signs of trouble. They demanded proof of problems when scientists had only incontrovertible evidence. And they didn't stop fishing until the oysters and crabs were almost gone.

That is the tragedy of the commons - where a fisherman benefits from every creature he catches, and the damage he does to the fishery is shared by everyone else. When that's the case, nobody has any incentive to conserve. The tragedy, in fact, is that self-interest induces a fisherman to take every creature until none are left.

The Chesapeake Bay is a very big commons, and its fishery - we all know - is a very big tragedy.

Watermen didn't cause the problems in the Bay. They are the fault of everyone who lives and farms around it and doesn't do enough to keep modern life out of the estuary. They are the fault of a rapacious menhaden industry that has repeatedly, through history, depleted its own fishery. The problems, taken all together, leave Virginians with a Bay that is increasingly dead for much of the year, and increasingly unable to sustain life in the rest.

Many people look at crashes in the Chesapeake Bay's crab and oyster populations and know that continuing to hunt those species will make things worse. They cheer the Virginia Marine Resources Commission's difficult decision to set rules reducing the crab take long enough for the population to recover. They mourn the damage to the fishing industry but know that it must be protected from its own natural predation.

Some in the fishing industry, though, simply won't look beyond the damage to their own livelihood. Because some didn't like the decision of the VMRC on crab limits, they have set out to change the VMRC.

John Miller, a Newport News Democrat, has introduced a seemingly innocent bill, SB1087, which passed the Senate unanimously and this week begins its House journey. The goal of the bill is to expand the VMRC from eight members to 10, and to add two watermen to the panel.

There is already plenty of opportunity for people affected by regulation to be heard. This legislation would upset the balance of the commission and shift it too far toward the interests being regulated. In other words, because they didn't like the jury's ruling, the watermen want to build a new jury.

Since the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, it's unlikely that lawmakers fully understood its import, or the effect it would have on the Bay's species. But Miller, a champion of the Bay, should've known better than to introduce legislation that would help return Virginia's waters to a time when they were managed by the people who profited from them.

The condition of the Bay now is evidence, clear and irrefutable, of what happens when commercial fishing interests manage their own fishery, unrestricted by anything other than the tragedy of the commons. Does anyone - aside from a few commercial fishermen - want to see Virginia return to that system?
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