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HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS OF THE VIRGINIA MARINE RESOURCES COMMISSION

Introduction
Agency Background
1680    First Virginia Fisheries Law
1785    Virginia-Maryland Compact of 1785
1864    Fisheries Exploitation - Oyster Navy
1875    Virginia Fish Commission Established
1877    Virginia-Maryland Boundary Arbitration
1894    Baylor Survey of Public Oyster Beds
1897    Virginia Oyster Navy Transferred to Fisheries Commission
1917    World War I - Naval Service
1920    Shellfish Bed Leasing; Transferred from Localities
1960    Natural Oyster Disasters - Oyster Repletion Program
1962    State-Owned Submerged Land; Jurisdiction
1968    Marine Resources Commission - New Name, New Missions
1970    Artificial Fishing Reefs
1972    Virginia Wetlands Act
1979    Marine Patrol Act
1980    Coastal Primary Sand Dunes Act
1982    Beaches Legislation
1984    Fishery Management Policy Act
AGENCY COMMISSION CHAIRMEN
  

THE CHESAPEAKE BAY

"Heaven and earth never agreed to frame a better place for man's habitation."

Captain John Smith
1606

The Chesapeake Bay and its great tidal tributaries sustained the first successful English settlers at Jamestown. From the nation's beginning to present, the attraction of mankind to the area for living, industry, and recreation has grown.

As the region evolved from a rural culture into a complex populated area, the Marine Resources Commission was created and developed to balance conservation of the resources with the needs that accompany population growth, industry, and recreation.

AGENCY BACKGROUND

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has been in continuous service to the Commonwealth of Virginia for over one hundred years.

Virginia established an oyster police navy after the Civil War. Two police schooners began enforcing state boundaries, keeping order, and preventing poaching over a wide expanse of coastal waters where exploitation of seafood resources was increasing.

In the late 1800's, a State Fish Commission was created to devise conservation measures for the fisheries. This commission and the oyster police navy were merged before the turn of the century. Missions expanded throughout the course of the 1900's. Powers were added to make and enforce conservation regulations; shellfish leasing was assumed from the localities; coastal surveying and mapping programs were developed; law enforcement functions were expanded to cover over 5,000 miles of shoreline on the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries, and Virginia's Atlantic Coast to protect and preserve the marine resources of the Commonwealth; and marine habitat programs were developed for submerged bottomlands, wetlands, coastal sand dunes, and beaches.

Headquartered in "Tidewater Virginia" for over a century, the Marine Resources Commission continues its responsibilities for balancing the needs of a growing population for development, commerce, and recreation, with the goals of resource conservation and protection in the marine environment.

1680    First Virginia Fisheries Law

The first Virginia Act protecting fisheries was passed in 1680, prohibiting fishing with gigs and harping irons in Gloucester, Middlesex, and Lancaster.

1785    Virginia-Maryland Compact of 1785

The question of boundary lines between Virginia and Maryland remained unsettled from their very beginning as colonies. Although the original boundaries of Virginia encompassed the Potomac River and Maryland, those areas were separated from Virginia in 1632 when King Charles I gave a charter to Lord Baltimore to establish the Province of Maryland.

Later Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Randolph were instrumental in establishing negotiations to secure access for Virginians to the Potomac River. Under the Compact of 1785 Virginia acquired equal access to the Potomac fisheries, while acknowledging ownership of the river by Maryland.

Today the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, an interstate compact commission jointly administered by Virginia and Maryland, regulates and manages Potomac River fisheries. The fisheries are open equally to residents of both states. Virginia Marine Resources Commission officers have joint law enforcement responsibility in the Potomac with Maryland officers.

1864    Fisheries Exploitation - Oyster Navy

Following the Civil War, thousands of the unemployed sought to make a living harvesting oysters on the Chesapeake Bay. It was a time of exploitation and open conflict between watermen over boundaries and rights to oyster beds.

Virginia and Maryland established State Oyster Police Navies to enforce order, boundaries, and prevent poaching.

In Virginia, a "Board of the Chesapeake" operated two Oyster Police schooners; the Tangier, and the Pocomoke.

1875    Virginia Fish Commission Established

An Act was passed providing for the appointment of a three-member Fish Commission. It had only an advisory function: reviewing conditions in the fisheries and recommending fisheries legislation to the Governor and General Assembly.

Operating continuously since that beginning, the Fish Commission evolved to become the Marine Resources with regulatory authority, law enforcement powers, and an array of marine program responsibilities.

1877    Virginia-Maryland Boundary Arbitration

While the State boundary line issue had generally been settled to include the Potomac River within Maryland, there continued to be unsettled disputes about the open water boundary across Chesapeake Bay, Tangier, and Pocomoke Sounds. With prime oyster beds at stake, open conflicts over harvesting rights took place between watermen of the two states.

The modern day boundary line was finally determined in binding arbitration known as the "Black and Jenkins Award." Both states agreed to accept a boundary finding from a distinguished panel of statesmen and jurists. Surveying and mapping the marine waters and boundaries continues to be modern day responsibility of the Marine Resources Commission.

1894    Baylor Survey of Public Oyster Beds

The Constitution of Virginia, Article XI, guarantees that the natural oyster beds, rocks and shoals be reserved for public use.

A massive two-year survey was conducted throughout State tidal waters to locate and map the naturally productive oyster beds, rocks, and shoals. Known as the "Baylor Survey", these areas were reserved for public shellfish harvesting and cannot be leased or used for other purposes.

The Baylor Survey is still in use, and is shown on current oyster planting ground maps.

1897    Virginia Oyster Navy Transferred to Fisheries Commission

Although the Fish Commission was established in 1875, the Virginia Oyster Navy continued to operate separately under the Board of the Chesapeake. When transferred to the Fish Commission in 1897, the Virginia Oyster Navy consisted of four police vessels: schooners Pocomoke and Tangier and steamers Chesapeake and Accomac. Other vessels acquired later included the steamers Commodore Maury and James River.

Today, waterborne patrols of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission are carried out for fisheries conservation, law enforcement, search and rescue, habitat protection, sanitation, and public health.

1917    World War I - Naval Service

The entire marine patrol force of the Fisheries Commission was placed in the United States Naval Reserve during World War I, providing harbor security patrols on the State's waters.

1920    Shellfish Bed Leasing; Transferred from Localities

A system of State-employed district oyster inspectors was established in 1920. Prior to that time, a network of county oyster inspectors and county surveyors administered oyster bed leasing in the localities. The inspectors were compensated by retaining a portion of fines and other fees collected. Their oyster inspection work was generally a sideline to other jobs held in the communities.

When the State Fisheries Commission assumed full control of oyster administration in 1920, nineteen oyster districts were established. One full-time inspector was employed for each district at $60.00 per month.

Today, shellfish bed leasing is centrally administered by an automated department at Marine Resources Commission Headquarters. The inspectors have much broader law enforcement responsibilities as Virginia Marine Patrol Officers.

1960    Natural Oyster Disasters - Oyster Repletion Program

The Virginia oyster industry was reported to be in a very healthy condition in 1957. Acres of private oyster ground under lease were at an all time high. Virginia was producing about thirty percent of the national supply.

Within two years, oyster beds in the lower Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads suffered severe damage from a disease known as MSX. Heavy losses left some oyster beds barren. Production in 1962 was the smallest in 44 years.

In 1963, the Commission of Fisheries began large scale efforts to replenish public oyster beds using shells dredged from submerged deposits. Oyster production was showing a substantial increase in the 1970 season. Then tropical storm Agnes flooded the major tributaries with fresh water. Not since 1771 had a single storm so severely damaged the oyster industry. Oyster beds that had been spared by MSX were destroyed by fresh water.

While natural production of oysters was once taken for granted, it is not likely that sustained production can again be obtained from public grounds without continued conservation and repletion efforts.

1962    State-Owned Submerged Land; Jurisdiction

In 1962, responsibility for permitting encroachments in or over state-owned submerged lands was transferred from the Office of the Attorney General to the Commission of Fisheries.

1968    Marine Resources Commission - New Name, New Missions

In 1967, a Virginia legislative study commission recommended a significantly broadened mission for the agency. As a result, the Commission of Fisheries became the Marine Resources Commission.

"The growing population pressures coupled with the broader demands upon the marine resources make it imperative that the mission of the Commission of Fisheries be broadened so that it will be prepared in the years ahead to more completely manage Virginia's principle marine resources".

From the Report of the Virginia Marine Resources Study Commission to the Governor and the General Assembly of Virginia, 1967.

1970    Artificial Fishing Reefs

Approximately one million anglers go fishing each year in the tidal waters of Virginia. Recreational fishing is economically important for its contributions to travel, tourism, and the sport fishing industry. Man-made reef structures enhance the bottom habitat, increase the production of fisheries, and improve recreational fishing.

State-supported efforts to construct artificial fishing reefs began with six surplus World War II liberty ships which were sunk offshore to create increased fishing opportunities.

Virginia is using a variety of materials and structures to construct reefs in the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. Examples include tires cast in concrete and precast concrete igloo structures.

Extensive research and study go into the planning, design, and construction of artificial reefs.

1972    Virginia Wetlands Act

The Marine Resources Commission became responsible for a new state program aimed at balancing conservation-vs-development in the preservation of tidal wetlands.

A new state law recognized the environmental value of tidal wetlands; authorized a permitting system for their protection; and authorized a network of local wetlands boards to make conservation-vs-development judgements on projects within the individual localities.

While the value of marine habitat resources along the shoreline is recognized today, throughout most of Virginia history waterways and marshes were often filled to make land. Many coastal towns like Norfolk were built of fill.

1979    Marine Patrol Act

A state financial assistance program for Tidewater localities was established to help them operate marine patrols. Legislation resulted from recommendations of a Marine Patrol Study Commission formed by the General Assembly.

Since 1979, the Marine Resources Commission has made yearly financial payments to Tidewater cities and counties which provide marine patrols for law enforcement, safety, and rescue activities.

1980    Coastal Primary Sand Dunes Act

1982    Beaches Legislation

Coastal primary sand dunes and beaches were added to marine habitat protection legislation. Following the same principles previously established for wetlands protection, the Coastal Primary Sand Dunes Act requires permits in order to insure that development is reasonably balanced with the protection and preservation of these coastal features.

Inappropriate development on coastal primary sand dunes and beaches can destroy vegetation; alter storm protecting contours; increase erosion flooding and property damage; destroy wildlife habitat; and lead to increased expenditures of public funds.

Almost sixty years earlier, efforts were made to protect and restore barrier island sand dunes in the Sandbridge area to prevent breaching by the Atlantic Ocean into the sound of Back Bay.

1984    Fishery Management Policy Act

The Virginia General Assembly enacted a state fishery management policy with a goal to manage fisheries for the long term good using the best available scientific, economic, biological, and sociological information available. This policy marked a shifting away from fisheries controlled by legislation, to fisheries managed by plans and regulations of the Marine Resources Commission. In this vein, a legislative report recommended: 

"The General Assembly may wish to consider amending the Code of Virginia to transfer the details of gear, seasonal restrictions, enforcement methods, and licensure fees, to administrative regulation".

From The Economic Potential and Management of Virginia's Seafood Industry

While fisheries management is now based upon professionally prepared plans for the major species, using the best available data and analysis, regulatory decisions are made in an open and democratic process by the agency's nine member commission.

Public sessions of the nine-member citizen commission include hearings, open discussion of resource management issues, adoption of conservation regulations, and environmental permit decisions. Time and attention are always given to citizens who appear with ideas, information, and comments.

AGENCY COMMISSION CHAIRMEN

*
April 3, 1875 - March 8, 1877
May 10, 1875 - March 8, 1877
April 16, 1875 - February 5, 1878

 
Dr. W. B. Robertson
M. G. Ellzey
Alexander Moseley

February 5, 1878 - January 23, 1888

Colonel Marshall McDonald

1889 - May 20, 1894

Dr. John T. Wilkins Jr.

May 21, 1894 - March 29,1898

Dr. John W. Bowdoin

March 30, 1898 - March 31, 1902

Dr. Frank Fletcher

April 1, 1902 - March 30, 1906

Dr. John W. Bowdoin

March 31, 1906 - February 28, 1914

W. McDonald Lee

March 1, 1914 - January 26, 1918

John S. Parsons

January 31, 1918 - February 28, 1918

James M. Lewis

March 1, 1918 - May 21, 1918

Walter E. Hathaway

May 21, 1918 - July 15, 1918

John R. Rew

July 19, 1918 - February 28, 1922

F. Nash Bilisoly

March 1, 1922 - March 1, 1926

W. McDonald Lee

March 1, 1926 - June 30, 1930

Harry R. Houston

July 1, 1930 - December 3, 1931

Joseph W. Chinn

December 3, 1931 - March 19, 1938

Richard Armstrong

March 19, 1938 - February 2, 1941

G. Walter Mapp

February 11, 1941 - May 31, 1942

J. Brooks Mapp

June 1, 1942 - December 4, 1958

Charles M. Lankford, Jr.

December 4, 1958 - June 8, 1971

Milton T. Hickman

July 8, 1971 - October 31, 1982

James E. Douglas

November 1, 1982 - February 21, 1983

Robert D. Craft (Acting)

February 22, 1983 - July 3, 2006

William A. Pruitt

July 3, 2006 to March 22, 2012 Steven G. Bowman
March 22, 2012 to January 10, 2014 Jack G. Travelstead 
January 13, 2014 to present John M.R. Bull

* When the Agency was established in 1875 three persons were initially appointed with the title "Commissioner of Fisheries". In 1877 the Virginia General Assembly amended the act recreating the position and made only one person "Commissioner of Fisheries". The title remained until 1968 when the General Assembly changed it to "Commissioner of Marine Resources".
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