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Menhaden harvest at heart of dispute

By BILL BURTON
July 3, 2005, Annapolis (Md.) Capital

Talk about a backlash! How would you like to be the underling at Omega Protein who advised the company to tough it out and make no concessions to sportsfishermen and conservationists in the purse-seining of menhaden in Chesapeake Bay?

Bad advice. If it were me, I'd be writing resumes and searching the classifieds under "Help Wanted."

Omega, the "sponsors" of the bay's purse-seining fleet out of Reedville, Va., could have played a more conciliatory role as little as six months ago and escaped the pickle it now finds itself in. But, like Col. Bill Travis at the Alamo, the company drew a line in the sand, and is now stuck behind it.

Had the powers that be at Omega been briefed in basic public relations, there would have been no nights like last Wednesday at the Radisson Hotel when a standing-room-only swarm of sportsfishermen, environmentalists and others buzzed like angry hornets whose nest had been trashed.

There were more than 200 of them, the biggest attendance ever for a fisheries hearing presided over by Nancy Wallace of Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), who admitted to being awed by the turnout. It was the third in the series of meetings on what to do about menhaden harvests in Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast. There's a difference between the two, which we'll get into in a moment.

For some time now, Texas-based Omega has had things pretty much its own way. The Reedville fleet has worked the Chesapeake (as well as the ocean), caught menhaden for processing at Reedville, and has prospered. These oily fish are converted to things like pet food, fertilizer, cosmetics and nutritional supplements (including the increasingly popular Omega 3), plus bait and chum.

In more recent years, concerns surfaced about the bay's menhaden population - specifically in Maryland, where purse seining is not allowed. In Virginia, it is. Virginia and North Carolina now have the only coastal menhaden fleets.

Basically, what we have - in the eyes of those who aired their gripes the other night - is a situation in which menhaden coming in from the ocean or already in the lower bay can't/don't make it into Maryland waters because Virginia's purse-seining fleet catches them first. And catches them by the billions.

Those testifying emphasized again and again their two foremost points:

• With oysters going down the tubes, menhaden are the foremost filtering agent of the Chesapeake.

Dan Sides, a member of MSSA, said their filtering of the waters of the bay could "defray some of the $30 billion cost needed to clean up the bay."

Charles Hutchinson, chairman of MSSA Menhaden Committee, called for a coastwide moratorium on industrial purse seining of menhaden, adding that a 1998 University of Maryland study concluded that the removal of nitrogen in the bay by their natural filtering systems was worth 50 times the value of the fish to the reduction fishery.

• Decreasing numbers of bay menhaden not only affect success among sportsfishermen, but also pose health problems among predatory fish such as stripers, bluefish, sea trout and others whose traditional foodfish supply is lacking. There are "more problems than enough with dead waters (low oxygen zones), we don't need sick fish," one man testified.
Another put his gripe this way: "If you go to a restaurant and don't get good service or whatever else you want, you don't go back."

It's the same with sportsfish, he said; if they don't get what they want (menhaden) they won't come back to the bay.

Beth Fitzgerald, in testifying for Greenpeace, referred to Jim Uphoff's DNR study that claimed a "linkage between the decline in health of striped bass in the Chesapeake and the decline in menhaden."

Fitzgerald also said another concern is that rockfish "in the absence of menhaden turn to other commercial and recreationally important species for a food source, such as blue crab, thereby displacing the problem to other parts of the marine ecosystem."

She asked for a coastwide moratorium on the reduction fishery.

Basically, there are two menhaden fisheries. The industrial reduction fishery is the big commercial operation, the one that catches menhaden (184,450 metric tons in '04) to reduce them to fish oils, fish meal and such - large volume catches for a large volume market. The other is the bait fishery, which usually involves smaller boats or pound nets, takes only a fraction of the menhaden catch (1,644 metric tons in the bay in '04), and the end product is (as its name implies) bait for crabs; bait and chum for fish.

There are many, shall we say "sub-options," for ASMFC when it decides the issue next month, but the overriding options boil down to two:

1. Keep the status quo, allow the continued catching as now; no caps or quotas and continue to rely on the ASMFC Technical Committee's observation that the coastal fishery (which includes the bay) is not being overfished.

2: To implement a cap on catches until it can be determined whether there is overfishing, especially in Chesapeake Bay, where most coastal menhaden are taken.

No mention is made of a moratorium in ASMFC's suggestions.

In the past, the Chesapeake menhaden fishery was classified within the coastal fishery, with scant data available as to the stocks of bay fish within the coastal fishery. As yet, there is no solid scientific evidence there is a bay problem. But just about all indications point that way - and ASMFC is gearing up for its first bay study to sort this all out.

Studies take years, so in deliberations earlier this year came the question of a temporary cap on catches to hold the line in the event overcatching does exist.

And, if there is to be a cap, how long should it be? What should the cap be (at present catch levels, or significantly lower levels)? And in just the bay, or bay and ocean? All 29 who testified here wanted at least a cap; probably more than half asked for a moratorium on purse seining in the bay, or the ocean. Or both.

There was testimony from only one commercial fisherman, a pound netter who was concerned that his small operation to catch menhaden for bait would be affected (it wouldn't). Purse seining isn't allowed in Maryland, so watermen here are caught in the middle; a cap could mean more sports finfish to catch in Maryland, but watermen are known to close ranks when one segment is under fire. It's a tough call.

And, when fisheries managers began talking seriously about the impact of the Reedville fleet's catches, Virginia governor Mark Warner made a tough call to our own Robert Ehrlich to express his concern for the Virginia menhaden fishery. We're told Ehrlich responded by saying his staff told him the issue was very important to Maryland - so Warner and Ehrlich are on different sides on this one.

Still on the agenda are more meetings. There's one July 12 at Gloucester Point, Va., and it should be a dilly, seeing as how state and its governor are firm supporters of the menhaden industry. At the same time, there are also many sports fishermen there - and CCA-Virginia wants a cap. CCA-Maryland asked for an annual cap of 105,800 metric tons, based on the most recent 5-year average figure available, with any catch overage being deducted from the following year's quota.

In reality, there is probably little chance for a moratorium in either the bay or ocean, though at my bet is that a moderate cap will come and be in place for four or five years in the bay where the biggest catches are made. Omega could have avoided all of this had it negotiated at the beginning rather than hold firm - and had it not threatened to go to court to thwart any involuntary restrictions.

Now, it's too late. Momentum is building, and not just here. While at the New Jersey meeting, cap sentiment was evenly divided, it was overwhelmingly favored in Delaware. Here, to much applause, Ehrlich's assistant John Mautz assured the gathering on hand that a cap had the governor's full support.

At this point, even talk of an ocean moratorium is premature. Surely, ASMFC isn't in the mood to give it serious consideration, seeing as how a peer review found that coastal fishing mortality was "well below the limit or threshold that defines overfishing." And, a moratorium for the bay at this time is also highly unlikely, with the commission's current stance being the "abundance of menhaden in Chesapeake Bay cannot be determined at this time due to a lack of data."

It is appropriate that ASMFC makes the final decision by vote after consideration of the input from interested parties in the affected coastal states. Member states now realize that we in Maryland want no more "lack of data" pleas; we want more menhaden access to our part of the bay, and the proceedings of the other night display the intensity of our demands.

When I asked Mike Slattery, assistant DNR secretary for fish and wildlife, his reaction to an overflowing hotel ballroom on a fisheries matter, he responded: "It's quite clear to me that the conservation and recreational fishing community is extremely passionate about the issue. Public demand for management action is growing very rapidly."

Stay tuned.


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