Summary of Major Initiatives and Related Progress
Some of the agency's most challenging issues in the last several years have dealt with the regulation and protection of finfish, oysters and blue crabs.
As the crab population had not responded to previous management efforts, the agency established a Blue Crab Management Review Panel to examine regulatory strategies and to identify new methods of restoration. The panel contained a number of Blue Crab experts from states on the Atlantic Coast seaboard who studied the Blue Crab situation and concluded their efforts with the issuance of a series of recommendations for the fishery. The Commission, in the spring of 2008, began to adopt, using the regulatory process, a number of the recommendations of this Blue Crab Panel.
Regulatory efforts enacted in 2008 prohibited dredging of crabs in the Commonwealth, and began to reduce the amount of crab gear that could be worked by each industry participant. Scientific surveys conducted during the winter of 2008/2009 have clearly shown that the 2008 management measures adopted by the Commission for Blue Crabs have produced a remarkable increase in the crab population in the Chesapeake Bay. With this documented level of success, the Commission decided to not adopt more stringent regulations for the 2009 fishery, and maintained the management measures instituted in 2008 for the 2009 crab season.
In response to the United States Secretary of Commerce declaring the crab fishery in the Commonwealth a disaster, the agency received a $15 million grant to assist those previously employed in the crab fishery. This grant, which will span three fiscal years, will be used for a number of projects.
The first project undertaken was in FY 2009, using former participants in the crab dredge fishery to locate marine debris, using side-scan sonars, and to remove this marine debris from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The first year of the program was deemed a huge success, with many tons of debris removed from the States waters. This program will continue through each of the two years of the 2010 - 2012 biennium, as a joint effort between MRC, VIMS and the watermen.
Other programs to be funded by the Disaster Grant include a Blue Crab Stock Assessment study to be done by NOAA, VMRC, and Maryland DNR, a program to purchase licenses from current crab fishery participants to reduce overcapacity and effort in the fishery; a program to retrain former crab industry participants in the specifics of oyster aquaculture by providing oyster seed, equipment and skilled instruction, to teach these watermen another way of earning income in the seafood industry in the long-term, and a project to market Virginia's blue crabs which will be done by the Virginia Marine Products Board. Two smaller research projects conducted by the VIMS, on crab pot cull rings and turtle excluders will also be funded.
The Fisheries Management Division has implemented the majority of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Oyster Panel to include establishment of permanent closed sanctuaries and rotational harvest areas in the Rappahannock River, Potomac River and its tributaries, and in Tangier-Pocomoke Sound.
An EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) evaluating the feasibility of introducing non-native oysters to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries was completed and released in the last fiscal year. The preparation of the EIS was a joint effort between the Army Corps of Engineers, the Marine Resources Commision and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Work on this EIS spanned several fiscal years, and monies were added to the agency's budget during this time, to pay for Virginia's effort. At the conclusion of the EIS, the three participating entities adopted a risk-adverse decision, and as a result the non-native oyster will not be introduced in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries at this time.
During the last biennium, and continuing into the current fiscal year, joint native oyster restoration work has been completed with the Army Corps of Engineers in the Lynnhaven and Great Wicomico Rivers. The City of Virginia Beach has provided a portion of the matching monies for the federal work in the Lynnhaven River. The MRC has provided in-kind match for the federal work done in other river systems.
The sites are showing early signs of success from the oyster spat/seed planted there, however, the agency will continue to monitor these sites closely to determine the long-term results of these joint oyster restoration efforts, and to assess how the oysters are impacted by disease and natural predators.
The oyster program continued its effort in the last biennium with a spat-on-shell production program, an alternative way to restore the native Virginia oyster, worked with individuals and companies in the seafood industry to evaluate alternate methods of oyster productions; partnered with various companies in the seafood industry to find alternate uses and ways to process and sell cow nosed rays, a predator for the native oyster; and continued some traditional seed and shell programs.
In FY 2009 - 2010, the agency received an almost $2 million grant from NOAA for oyster restoration efforts in the Commonwealth. The agency has requested this sum of money be added to its base budget and is hopeful that this will become a stable source of support for the agency's oyster replenishment activities.
The Oyster Replenishment Department has received a Stimulus grant, valued at slightly over $1.2 million, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, to continue oyster restoration efforts on the seaside of the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
The Fisheries Plans and Statistics Department continues to use an on-line Saltwater Journal where recreational anglers may report their catch, its location, as well as get information from other anglers. This was begun in September 2007, and the agency has begun to gain fisheries management data from this effort.
NOAA has established a 2010 requirement to register saltwater anglers and means of collecting better harvest data from recreational fishermen. VMRC is participating in this effort, which may potentially result in a change to the way Virginia licenses recreational anglers. VMRC will present several options for licensing recreational anglers to the 2010 Session of the General Assembly.
In 2008 the agency Artificial Reef program far exceeded its goal for tonnage placed overboard on established Reef Sites using former subway cars, and donated concrete structures. Much of the material placed overboard was done at the program's two newest reef sites off Poquoson and Mobjack, as well as at older established reef sites where deterioration of previous reef material takes place over time.
In 2009, the Artificial Reef program initiated, using a private contractor, a side-scan sonar on-the-water survey of all Artifical Reef sites maintained by the agency, to determine those in need of more material. This survey should be complete in the 2009 - 2010 fiscal year.
A new commercial harvest reporting system has been developed with funding provided by a grant from NOAA. This update will allow the agency to make greater use of much of the fisheries data that is collected, and to share this data more easily with the National Marine Fisheries Service, as we are required to do.
The Finfish Aging program continues to collect biological information on fishery resources, a key component of fisheries management. The agency encourages citizens, who fish recreationally to donate various species of fish to this effort. Large capacity freezers have been installed at selected sites where anglers dock, and allows to the donation of fish or fish carcasses for scientific research purposes. To date, this has been quite successful in providing MRC with various types of samples that otherwise might not be available for program use, or that the agency would have to purchase. This program, which has enjoyed wide support from Virginia's recreational fishing community will continue into the 2010 - 2012 biennium.
The Fisheries Plans and Statistics Department has received a grant from ACCSP/NOAA to allow the agency to purchase a quantity of new fish measuring boards. These boards, expected to be purchased during the 2010 fiscal year, will provide great assistance to agency staff who work with the Fisheries Stock Assessment and Finfish Aging programs. Existing boards using by agency staff required replacement, but there were no monies in the agency budget to support this effort.
The agency established a Fishing Guide License by regulation in 2008. As Virginia now has a reciprocity agreement with Maryland, Virginia Charter Boats now have access to fish in both Maryland and Virginia waters, once certain licensing conditions are met. Over 250 Virginia licensed vessels are eligible for license reciprocity with Maryland, without payment of any fee over the cost of the Virginia Guide license.
The 2009 Session of the Virginia General Assembly gave the agency the authority, to establish by regulation, a Non-Resident Saltwater Recreational Fishing License, and to charge a fee for this license. The fee charged is intended to equitably allocate costs of Fisheries Management and Law Enforcement between Virginia residents and nonresidents. The analysis done to support the creation of the license, shows that Virginia residents were disproportionally bearing these costs. The new licenses were established in August 2009, and become effective December 1, 2009. The new non-resident fees will be double the Virginia resident license fees
Installation of of STARS radio equipment has been completed in all boats and vehicles, used by all uniformed agency Law Enforcement employees.
STARS is fully used by agency Marine Police staff, and they are very pleased with the communications capacities that it offers.
Installation should be done in FY 2010 of STARS equipment in the agency airplane, and of a control station in the headquarters facility.
A draft Memorandum of Understanding has been completed between the Law Enforcement Divisions of the Marine Resources Commission and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The agreement is expected to be finalized in 2009, and joint enforcement activity is already taking place.
The agency Investigative Unit continues to enjoy great success in its joint participation investigative efforts with other local, state and federal units. Of recent note is their participation in catching several rockfish poachers on the Potomac River, resulting in fines of over $200,000 each for these individuals and their recent efforts in Portsmouth arresting individuals responsible for a series of marine related thefts
The Law Enforcement Division, in addition to belonging to the Hampton Roads Criminal Justice Academy for training, has also developed its own in-service training, and in FY 2009 began using its own Field Training Officers in each area, to work with new Marine Police Officers.This program has enjoyed great success.
Division employees have begun to do much of their recertification work required by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services on-line. This has cut done greatly on training days required for agency officers.
The Law Enforcement Division continues to participate in a Joint Enforcement Agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, and has recently received funding to purchase side-scan sonars for each of the four agency Law Enforcement areas. These are expected to be of tremendous assistance during Search and Rescue activities.
The Habitat Management Division continues to operate a Joint Habitat Permitting Process with other local, state and federal agencies, resulting in a truly streamlined review process for the agency clients. In 2008, the Division processed 2,295 permit applications, a 25% decrease from the previous year, primarily due to the State's economic situation. The Division also instituted a Commission consent agreement process for violations involving Habitat Management Divsion permitting matters. These represent a small number of cases where projects were found to have been initiated without appropriate permits or construction exceeded permitted dimensions. Civil charge payments are accepted in lieu of the need for further enforcement action through court actions. These charges are negotiated by agency staff prior to the Commission meeting, and are presented to the Commission Board for review and approval, following the necessary public review process. As such these civil charges are no longer negotiated during the Commission meetings.
During the 2008 - 2010 biennium, the agency sustained a series of budget reductions, resulting in the agency's loss of general funds, for portions of its core functions: Law Enforcement, Fisheries Management and Habitat Management. The results of the budget reduction exercises have been made a part of the agency's base budget.
In 2008-2010 the agency received monies to cover increased costs for central services, including the 7/1/08 rent increase for the headquarters facility in Newport News. Monies will also be requested for the rent increases expected to occur at 7/1/10 and 7/1/11. The lease agreement was negotiated by the state Department of General Services, on behalf of the Marine Resources Commission.
In addition, the agency received Maintenance Reserve monies, during the last biennium,enabling MRC to replace the roof at the agency Operations/Dispatch Center, to fix all the problems resulting from the settling of the almost 30 year old building, and to examine the building's foundation to determine that it was solid.
Based on action taken by the 2009 Session of the General Assembly, the agency is no longer required by law to have its headquarters located in Newport News. A revision to Section 28.2 - 104, 4, allows the agency to be located anywhere on the Virginia Peninsula - to include Williamsburg, James City County, York County, Newport News, Hampton, and Poquoson, allowing the agency to have greater flexibility when the State negotiates on its behalf for new office space.
In FY 2007 and FY 2008 some additional changes in nongeneral fund appropriations were approved and have become part of the agency's base budget as well: increased appropriation to account for revenue generated from the sales of commercial and recreational fishing licenses; increased federal grant monies, and appropriations for activity associated with the Waterways Improvement Fund and the Saltwater Recreational Saltwater Fishing Funds. Some of these changes came as a direct result of the approval of the agency's general fund budget reduction exercises, which allowed, in a number of instances, the agency to continue core functions using non-general fund sources, rather than the traditional general fund support.
The agency, working with staff from VITA and Northrup-Grumman, have continued to work towards the full "transformation" of agency IT services to those solely operated by VITA and its partners. The progress towards full transformation has been fairly slow , however we are hopeful that it will be finalized in the current fiscal year. Agency business systems applications and related work are still done by MRC employees, with only a very small portion of any VMRC staff person's time devoted to the IT services that will be "transformed" to VITA.
Of particular concern to MRC, as it has worked towards full transformation, has been the associated fiscal year costs due to VITA for IT services. These continue to exceed the amount available in the Marine Resources Commission's budget by approximately 500%. Full payment for these services in the last 3 years has relied heavily on monies from Central State Appropriations, as well as the use of a number of one-time funding sources by the agency. Without a sustained level of financial support added to the agency's base budget, we have reached the point where we do not have monies available in the agency budget to pay VITA the full yearly cost of these IT transformation services. The implications of this are not currently known, but the agency continues to work within the State system to resolve this funding issue.
In support of the State's environmental initiatives, the agency has implemented a "Go Green" program that was introduced to agency staff in July 2009. Participation has been excellent, as we encourage our employees to help the environment in a variety of ways - from drinking tap water rather than bottled water, to participating in conference calls rather than driving long distances to meetings, to turn off lights and computers, etc.