Greenpeace stages peaceful Omega protest

The organization says menhaden harvests affect the food chain

REEDVILLE — Amid heavy security to protect the state’s largest fishing fleet, Greenpeace demonstrators staged a peaceful protest in Cockrells Creek at the tip of the Northern Neck yesterday.

“I’m very pleased with the way it went,” said Col. Steve Bowman of the Virginia Marine Police, which sent seven patrol boats and an airplane to monitor the event.

Bowman said his force made no arrests and observed no trouble from the flotilla of 15 to 20 kayaks, outboards and inflatables that paraded offshore of the Omega Protein Co. fish factory. Greenpeace held the demonstration to call attention to proposals to cap or curtail the harvest of menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean coast.

Debate has been growing for years over whether Omega’s multimillion-metric-ton catches of the bait fish have any impact on the aquatic food chain, but it took Greenpeace to raise the debate’s profile with the first demonstration against the company’s sprawling creekside facility. The international environmental organization is known for attention-grabbing, boat-borne protests.

About 50 Greenpeace volunteers, staff members and friends turned out for the protest, said Joseph Gordon, Greenpeace’s Chesapeake Bay field organizer.

The event looked more like summer camp than the radical monkeywrenching that many in Northumberland County were expecting.

“We’ve had a few people come up and say we just wanted to see what you guys looked like,” said John Hocevar, a Greenpeace oceans advocate who came from Austin, Texas, to attend the demonstration.

While the merits of a cap or the fishing moratorium that Green peace advocates will be weighed next month by an interstate coastal fishing commission, the divisions between the two sides are clear.

“Factory fishing is overkill,” read the banner that a boatload of Greenpeace volunteers struggled to spread on the water as the shadow of the Virginia Marine Patrol airplane skimmed the creek.

On shore, behind the Shearwater, the John S. Dempster Jr., the Smith Island and the other moored ships that reflect the history and culture of Reedville’s menhaden industry, Omega officials regarded the protest as an insult.

“It’s unwanted attention and an unwanted disruption,” said Toby Gascon, director of governmental affairs for the Houston-based company. Omega processes menhaden into animal feed, fish oils and human dietary supplements. Its 250 employees make it the biggest employer on the lower Northern Neck.

The 10 ships in Omega’s Reedville fleet caught more than 180,000 metric tons of menhaden last year. Such catches make the tiny village the third-biggest in the United States year after year in terms of landings.

Omega says the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission considers the Atlantic stock of menhaden healthy. Critics counter that the company is increasingly concentrating in the bay and nothing is known about how menhaden fare there. They also maintain that striped bass and other predator fish are becoming stressed due to a lack of forage.

The commission’s menhaden management board will meet in Alexandria on Aug. 17 to consider menhaden-harvest limits while scientists attempt to get a better handle on population trends.

Contact Lawrence Latané III at (804) 333-3461 or