by Walton Milam, Associate Staff


For years, Virginia anglers have lamented the arbitrary three mile line separating the legal area to chase Virginia’s striped bass from the “exclusive economic zone”[1] where commercial boats can legally reek havoc[2] on schools of striper for which the Virginia coast is famous.  The three-mile line is non-sensical for a number of reasons.  The idea that the environment is less affected by a fish caught 2.9 miles offshore than one caught 3.1 miles offshore seems unpersuasive at best.  If population decimation is the federal government’s concern, the two fish per angler rule seems to address these concerns adequately.   If the two fish per angler rule is inadequate, laws ought to further restrict the amount of fish legally caught rather than how far offshore the fish can be caught.  The rule instead seems more likely to be the result of successful lobbying on the part of commercial fisherman who have long foiled the attempts of environmentalists to invoke meaningful improvement, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay.[3]  While I admittedly am skeptical of any attempt by the government to manipulate behavior to affect environmental change, the case of the three-mile line seems particularly heinous.  Commercial fisherman claim that their livelihood depends on their ability to harvest fish outside the three mile zone.  However, many anglers make their living guiding “non-commercial” patrons.  Further, even more anglers work five days a week with the hopes that they can spend money and time and enjoy their free time on the weekend.  In doing so they spend thousands of dollars on licenses, boats, tackle, bait, gas, ice, food, lodging, and beer.  These endeavors seem just as economic as any commercial fisherman catching fish in the “exclusive economic zone.” 

Finally, the technological aspect of enforcement is tricky, given the nature of fishing near the line.  While most GPS and Fishfinder systems include the Three Mile Line in maps, when fishing near the line, it is not always easy to ascertain whether one is in an illicit or legal zone.  This issue is further complicated when fighting a fish that may start in the legal zone but move to the illegal zone.  While most citations of which I am aware occur far outside the line, the difficulty of determining when one is fishing legally adds to the confusion.  One could foreseeably hook up with a striper within the three-mile zone but have the friend run into the exclusive economic zone, making the fish illegal to catch.