By Xanthe Waters and Jessica Porter
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Big trouble could be on the horizon for a tiny fish, the Atlantic menhaden.
Some worry that menhaden, which play an important role in the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, are being overfished – mostly by a company in Virginia. That’s triggered a debate in environmental circles, the fishing community and the General Assembly over how to manage the menhaden population.
“There is genuine concern in the scientific community about whether the phased population, if not the total Atlantic Coast population, might be overfished,” said Chuck Epes, communications coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
A report released this week by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission gave both sides of the debate some ammunition. It said menhaden are not being overfished but found “signs of concern” – because the number of young fish has been dropping in recent years.
The Chesapeake is the largest estuary on the Atlantic Coast, providing a nursery for menhaden. Newborns spend about a year in the bay, leave in late fall and migrate down the coast to warmer waters.
Menhaden, approximately 15 inches in length as adults, are plankton-eating fish critical to the aquatic ecosystem. People don’t eat menhaden, but other animals do: They serve as prey for striped bass, rockfish, bluefish, sharks and porpoises, as well as for herons and other sea birds.
That’s why a recent book by H. Bruce Franklin, a noted scholar and historian, calls menhaden “the most important fish in the sea.”
The fish is regulated, in federal waters at least, by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a governmental body with representatives from 15 states from Florida to Maine.
Because of concerns about overfishing, the commission adopted a cap on menhaden fisheries in 2006, stating that only 109,200 metric tons could be harvested in one year.
“What the cap did is like a placebo pill that you take: Maintain that level, and see if the abundance in the bay changes,” said David Nobles, former Virginia president of the Coastal Conservation Association, an environmental group.
But after five years of study by the commission, “they have nothing to show,” Nobles said. That’s because when it comes to menhaden, “they don’t know how much should be in the Chesapeake Bay” in the first place.
The 2006 cap was set to expire in December. But during this year’s legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly extended the limit for three years – until Jan. 1, 2014. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the legislation into law in April.
Some are concerned that Omega Protein Corp., a Houston-based company, is overharvesting menhaden. The company operates out of Reedville, Va., on the Chesapeake Bay. It catches menhaden to produce omega-3 fish oil for human and animal consumption.
Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega Protein, says there is no reason for concern about overharvesting menhaden.
“There’s no such thing as a menhaden population within the Chesapeake Bay,” Landry said. “The menhaden are a coastwide stock. It’s one single stock; there is no substock within the Chesapeake Bay.
“The best available science shows that the menhaden population is healthy on a coastwide basis.”
Last year, Omega reporting taking 85,000 metric tons of menhaden out of the Chesapeake Bay – an amount the company says is within regulation and below the cap.
It’s no surprise that Omega has its fleet and processing plant in Virginia: Virginia and North Carolina are the only states that allow Omega to fish for menhaden in state waters; other states have pushed the company farther out to sea.
Omega says it’s more convenient to catch menhaden in the Chesapeake than in the open ocean.
“The larger, more oily fish are located in the ocean, and that is certainly attractive to the company,” Landry said.
“But since we are located on the Chesapeake Bay and the population is healthy, then it makes a lot of business sense for us to simply catch fish in the bay. We don’t have to burn as much fuel, too.”
Environmentalists say Virginia has been overly accommodating to Omega Protein for a political reason: In Virginia, menhaden are managed in state waters by the General Assembly. (All other fisheries in Virginia are handled by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, a state agency.)
Like many businesses, Omega Protein makes political campaign donations: Over the years, it has given about $170,000 to legislators and other state candidates. That included a $25,000 contribution to McDonnell’s inaugural committee.
Environmentalists and some lawmakers want to transfer the regulation of menhaden in Virginia’s state waters from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. That was the intent of two bills introduced this legislative session: Senate Bill 185, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk; and House Bill 294, by Delegate John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake.
Neither proposal made it out of subcommittee. That disappointed Epes and other officials at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. They want more protection for menhaden.
“We still contend that the Virginia Marine Resources Commission is the appropriate agency to handle it because they are the professionals, they have the science and they have the flexibility to step in and make whatever regulatory changes on a monthly basis, rather than the General Assembly, which meets once a year,” Epes said.
“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation would like for whatever happens to the menhaden fishery in the bay to be determined by the best science.”
Omega says that’s already happening and that the current regulatory structure is appropriate.
“We think that the General Assembly has a lot more people and a lot more eyes to look at this issue based on the data that they are given by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission,” Landry said.
Some legislators feel they don’t have enough solid information about menhaden to make key decisions about the fish.
“I just think we need more information,” said Delegate Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach.
“If we’re supposed to regulate something, we need it based on science, and not perception or lobbyists or anything else.”
For more on the Web, visit:Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission: www.asmfc.org
Virginia Marine Resources Commission: www.mrc.state.va.us
Chesapeake Bay Foundation: www.cbf.org
Omega Protein: www.omegaproteininc.com