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It's time once again to grieve the commercial menhaden season

By James Drake, Outdoors Columnist
The Enterprise (Lexington Park, MD), Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The commercial menhaden season in the Chesapeake Bay got underway for 2006 just this week.

Recreational fishermen everywhere ought to be wearing a black arm band.

At one time around here, the menhaden fishery was a gargantuan business with processing plants dotting the East Coast. Today, there is but one company left, but they're doing the very best they can. In fact, another big boat was recently added to their fleet.

Omega Protein, a Houston-based corporation, runs a menhaden processing operation out of Reedville, Va. It uses spotter planes and a modest flotilla of purse seine trawlers to mercilessly scoop up the menhaden from Virginia's portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

Thankfully, most other states outlawed those purse seines many years ago, for they were just too efficient at the job they did.

Today, Omega uses airplanes to spot these fish (which is easy to do because they often cause a lot of commotion on the water's surface) and then it radios the boats on the exact location. Those trawlers next come in and circle the schools of menhaden, drop their nets around them and then close them up (like a purse) and get every last one.

The fish are brought to Reedville and ground up into product for dietary supplements, animal feeds and the like.

Those little finned critters don't have a chance.

Menhaden are a bony, oily fish that sport fishermen never target. Heck, they don't bite anyway, for they're filter feeders, which means they help clean the water by filtering as they swim.

Oysters do the very same thing, but it's already too late to save most of them.

And, it's not like our Chesapeake Bay couldn't use a lot more of this type of assistance.

Menhaden are also a prime food source for many fish that we recreational fishermen passionately care about, such as striped bass, bluefish and sea trout.

It is thought by some scientists that because so many menhaden are being netted by Omega Protein, our resident stripers in the Chesapeake Bay are being starved and that's the chief reason so many are infected right now by disease.

However, we don't know for sure; so last August the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission put a cap, or limit, on how many menhaden Omega may take.

It was a quite liberal number too. The ASMFC gave Omega Protein the average of its past few years' total hauls to take again for each of the next five years. That official number was more than 100,000 metric tons.

Scientists hoped that with this protective cap on, studies could later be completed on the menhaden stocks and better assessments made of what effect the continued operation in Reedville has on other game fish swimming out there in our bay.

Well, during the recent 2006 legislative session held in Richmond, the Virginia General Assembly basically thumbed its nose at the ASMFC and said it wasn't going to enforce any cap at all on the taking of menhaden.

These little fish don't know anything about state lines or borders. What happens to these menhaden fish stocks in Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay surely has consequences directly felt here in Maryland.

Last week, a group calling itself Menhaden Matter released a study it dubbed Menhaden Math that had some very interesting statistics within the pages. There were some heavy hitters as partners in this research, too. Involved parties included the Coastal Conservation Association, The National Coalition for Marine Conservation, The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Association and the American Sportfishing Association.

The numbers presented were remarkable, to put it mildly.

According to Menhaden Math, the commercial menhaden fishery today in the Chesapeake Bay generates $24 million in economic activity and is directly responsible for 395 full-time jobs.

Now, on the other hand, saltwater anglers targeting only fish that rely on menhaden for a big part of their diet created 2,500 full-time jobs and generated a whopping $236 million in Virginia economic activity.

Those menhaden clean the water too, and if you consider all the saltwater anglers in Virginia, nearly a million of them by the way, they collectively spend $655 million for their sport.

It is absolutely insane not to look at these figures to decide the proper course of action and settle on what is really best for Virginia. And, best too for menhaden, the bigger gamefish that eat them, plus, all the fishermen in Virginia and hundreds of thousands more here in Maryland, yet the Virginia General Assembly didn't do it.

You don't suppose Omega Protein makes significant political contributions to some Virginia legislators, do you?

No matter. There is going to be a showdown and it will happen in July. Federal agencies could then impose a total moratorium and close down Omega Protein's entire operation.

I wouldn't bet my next paycheck that's actually going to happen; but, I certainly hope it does.


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