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Menhaden Madness

Tension Grows as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Ponders a Decision On How to Manage the Bay’s Dwindling Menhaden Population

Jefferson Jackson Steele
SOMETHING'S FISHY: Richard Novotny, executive director of The Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen's Association, says that because menhaden are being so heavily fished in the bay, the fish that feed on them are showing signs of malnutrition.

By Ryan Grim | Posted 8/10/2005

Spotter planes hover over Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, scanning for schools of menhaden, a bony and oily fish that fetches pennies per pound on the market. Time was, these schools would appear to the pilots as massive, moving islands of fish. Today, menhaden are but a small, dark blip in the bay. But the planes can spot them, nonetheless.

The pilot radios coordinates to boats owned by the Houston-based Omega Protein Corp., the only industrial fishing operation still working the bay. Two boats surround the school and toss giant nets around it. Then the vacuum cleaner comes out—a two- to three-foot-wide hose that literally sucks the fish out of the water, and deposits up to 300,000 of them into a refrigerator in a 150-foot “mother ship.” The fish are then crushed and ground into oil and meal for use in nutritional supplements, margarine, cat food, chicken and pig feed, and Texas school lunches, among other things.

Menhaden are a small but important fish in the Chesapeake. They are a primary food source for rockfish, a sport fish prized by anglers; when rockfish don’t have enough menhaden to eat (and studies have shown that menhaden are making up less and less of the rockfish diet), they turn to blue crabs. That’s bad for Maryland’s crab-fishing industry and bad for the rockfish, which fishermen are finding suffer health impacts, such as lesions and lower weights, when crabs make up so much of their diet. In addition, menhaden help clean bay waters on a scale similar to that of oysters. And with oyster populations declining, menhaden, which swim with mouths open, filtering the water, are even more important to bay health. Each foot-long fish is capable, according to a study by marine biologist Sara Gottlieb, of cleansing seven gallons of water per minute (10,000 gallons per day).

But the number of menhaden swimming Chesapeake waters reached record lows last October, according to Menhaden Matter, a coalition of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Environmental Defense, the Coastal Conservation Association, and the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. So now the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which governs fisheries up and down the Atlantic coast, is at last considering action. The commission has proposed a limit on the number of menhaden the industrial-fishing industry—which, when it comes to menhaden, pretty much is Omega Protein—can suck out of the bay. At the same time, support is growing for an outright halt to Omega’s operations.

Howard King, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Fisheries Service, says the state of Maryland is backing the cap. Industrial-fishing operations “have been taken out of all coastal waters except for Virginia and North Carolina,” he says. “Consequently, 55 to 75 percent of the catch comes from the Virginia part of the Chesapeake Bay. . . . We think there’s a serious possibility of local depletion of menhaden stock in the Chesapeake Bay, so we’d like to prevent [Omega] from expanding their operation while research questions are answered.”

The proposed cap on the menhaden catch, which would be determined based on an average of the last five years’ worth of catches, is supported by a range of groups that don’t often find themselves on the same side of an issue. The DNR and Menhaden Matter are joined in support of the cap by the Annapolis-based Maryland Watermen’s Association, the strongest lobbying group of watermen in the state. Maryland Watermen’s Association president Larry Simms says that it’s a simple matter of science.

“Our people want to make decisions based on the best science” on menhaden populations in the bay, he says. “Right now, there’s no good science. . . . All we’re saying is that we don’t want Omega to expand until the science is done.”

Simms says that Omega has fought the call for a cap on the menhaden industry, and he faults the company for its unwillingness to compromise. “They drew a line in the sand saying they wanted no limit,” he says. “Whenever you draw a line in the sand, that’s when the crazies come out, like Greenpeace.”

And Greenpeace did come out. In fact, the nonprofit international environmentalist group has been holding demonstrations outside Omega’s Virginia plant to call for a total moratorium on menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. And support for that moratorium, rather than a cap, has been growing at local meetings and hearings, says Nancy Wallace of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG), the Recreational Fishing Alliance, and the Maryland SaÎtwater Sportsfishermen’s Association, which boasts 7,000 members (the majority of which live in Baltimore city and county), have joined Greenpeace in calling for a moratorium to Omega’s menhaden fishing.

“It’s the only filter we have left. The oysters are gone,” says Charles Hutchinson, chairman of the Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen’s Association’s menhaden committee. “Every other filter takes time and money. Menhaden are already there and don’t cost the taxpayer a penny.”

The group’s executive director, Richard Novotny, says the rockfish being caught in the bay this season “are showing signs of malnutrition, like lesions and red sores.” In the past, Novotny says he has cut open rockfish he’s caught and found menhaden in their stomachs; today, he sees almost exclusively small blue crabs—not a good sign for watermen who angle for the rockfish, nor for the struggling crabbing industry, which has also declined over the years.

“The cap does nothing for them,” Novotny insists. “It’s a token gesture by the [ Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission].”

The fisheries commission may make a decision on whether it will cap the menhaden catch as soon as a scheduled Aug. 17 meeting. Backers of the moratorium are hoping to delay that decision and force the commission to at least put the idea of a moratorium on the table. At a July meeting on the matter held in Virginia, Joseph Gordon, Greenpeace’s Chesapeake Bay field organizer, posed a question to the crowd: “If a moratorium was an option, how many here would support it?” All but a few hands were raised.

Regardless of the feelings of those in the room, the state of Virginia does not support limiting the menhaden catch. The health of the bay, it seems, is competing with the economic health of the rural Virginia town where Omega Protein has its processing plant. In Reedville, Va., 268 people are employed by Omega, and locals worry that if the menhaden industry dries up so will their jobs. At a July 12 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission hearing at Watermen’s Hall in Gloucester Point, Va., 60 miles south of Reedville, the tension in the air was thick as opponents in the menhaden debate traded barbs about the future of the industry.

“The Chesapeake Bay is not [Omega’s] personal fishing pond,” said Robert Allen, a 72-year-old fisherman in favor of a moratorium on the menhaden catch.

ýI guess [the Coastal Conservation Association does] some good things,” said Doug Jenkins, head of Twin Rivers Watermen’s Group in Virginia, who opposes any regulation of the industry whatsoever. “But I know their history. They want to end commercial fishing. Once they knock down Omega Protein, they’ll start on everyone else.”

Omega’s director of government affairs, Toby Gascon, agrees, noting that there is not enough scientific evidence on hand to justify a complete moratorium on menhaden fishing.

“We’re down to two states and that’s directly related to political pressure,” he says. Gascon says he worries what will happen to Reedville if Omega is forced to shut down. “It would be the end of a centuries-old tradition and livelihood. . . . It would pretty much shut down the town of Reedville. The day they institute this cap the fisheries managers would abandon science-based management. It would be just another step in a systematic attempt to destroy the [commercial-fishing] industry.”

After the meeting, Gascon told a City Paper reporter that the menhaden catch has indeed been shrinking—in 2004, he said it was down 2 percent from its 2003 catch. This year’s catch, he added, is down 9 percent from 2004.

On July 23, Greenpeace and MaryPIRG held their most recent menhaden demonstration. About 30 boats floated on Cockrell’s Creek outside Omega Protein’s processing plant in Reedville. A 20-foot image of a fish skeleton pointed toward the plant, while an entire town, no doubt bewildered by the spectacle, wondered about its future. But if Greenpeace is right about menhaden populations, which it says are being decimated by commercial fishing, either way Omega and its 268 jobs won’t be around much longer. And rockfish and blue crabs might not be far behind.

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