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In the End, Omega Is Bad for Chesapeake Menhaden

By Angus Phillips

Washington Post, p. E04, Sunday, October 31, 2004

 
You may have heard of Quail Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, nonprofit environmental groups working to restore prized sporting species to former abundance. Ever wonder what happens if they succeed?

That's the issue being addressed by a new addition to the conservation community, a group called Menhaden Matter that aims not to protect a sport species but to save the humble, oily little baitfish the revived predators need to survive.

This coalition of four conservation groups believes Chesapeake Bay rockfish and other creatures at the top of the bay food chain are going hungry because menhaden are overfished here, and thinks the federal Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission ought to do something about it.

"We're restoring fished-down predator species, so the demand for prey is going up," said Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. "We're looking at a breakdown in the Chesapeake Bay food web. Rockfish, bluefish, sea trout, ospreys and loons all depend on menhaden, which are disappearing when we need them the most."

Hinman puts the blame in large part on Omega Protein, a Houston-based conglomerate that operates a reduction fishery out of Reedville, Va., that took an estimated 100,000 metric tons of menhaden from Virginia waters last year, he said. That's more than 200 million pounds.

It's quite an operation. Huge schools of menhaden, locally called alewives or bunker, are located by spotter planes, which call in factory boats to encircle and gather the fish in purse-seine nets and suck them from the water with vacuum hoses. On shore, the fish are reduced by cooking at the pungent Reedville plant to make cat food, livestock meal and Omega 3 oil, recently approved as a human health food supplement. It's a $25 million-a-year business, according to Menhaden Matter.

Hinman, along with David Festa of Environmental Defense, Bill Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Sherman Baynard of the Coastal Conservation Association, said the coastal menhaden population has been in decline since 1990, partly because of poor spawning success, and the decline hits hardest in the bay where they are targeted by Omega.

All coastal states except Virginia and North Carolina have closed their menhaden reduction fisheries over the last half-century, so Omega's Reedville plant now accounts for up to 90 percent of the coastal catch. The result, say the environmentalists, is "localized depletion" of the baitfish in the bay.

The group's report, issued last week, cites studies showing that bay rockfish as a result have on average 10 to 25 percent of the body fat of healthy fish and that 50 to 70 percent are infected with mycobacteriosis, a bacterial infection that affects stressed or malnourished fish.

Since menhaden are the prime forage for rockfish and other species, their abundance is vital to a healthy estuary. Goldsborough called it "perhaps the most important fish on our coast." Yet menhaden is the only species on which ASMFC, the federal oversight agency for coastal fish, imposes no catch or size limits. It's also the only species Virginia regulates through its legislature, rather than the professional Marine Resources Commission.

As a result, Omega winds up with a free hand to scoop all the menhaden it can handle with a 10-boat factory fleet and a newly renovated factory in Reedville. With interest in Omega 3 fatty acids as dietary supplements growing, the value is going up, which further concerns the environmentalists.

ASMFC contends the overall coastal stock of menhaden is healthy, despite poor reproduction in recent years, and that it lacks data to determine whether there is localized depletion in the Chesapeake. The commission convened a workshop of 30 scientists to address the issue last month. A report is due next week, but the scientists essentially want more data before taking any action, said ASMFC spokesman Robert Beal.

Omega spokesman Toby Gascon says stocks are not overfished in the bay and no quotas or limits are needed. "What Menhaden Matter fails to see is that the rockfish stock is artificially inflated in the Chesapeake" due to conservation efforts the last 20 years, he said, and that's why rockfish are going hungry.

Omega reckons ASMFC should push for a bigger rockfish catch to relieve predatory pressure on menhaden, rather than putting limits on the commercial menhaden catch in Virginia. He also said Menhaden Matter's hidden agenda is to shut down the reduction fishery altogether, an assertion vigorously denied by all four partners in the coalition.

What do I think? Menhaden are crucially important to a healthy bay because they are the bottom-line food source for many species and because as filter feeders they help clean the bay of excess plankton and algae, an increasing problem in the overnourished waterway. I also think having no coastal size limits or catch quotas on a critical species in the 21st century is inexcusable.

I think scientists will always say they don't have enough data, with some justification since it's hard to know for sure what's going on in a highly mobile resource you can't see. Lack of certainty is a fact of life; paralysis by analysis is not the proper response.

The bottom line is, you can't take 200 million pounds a year of a vital resource out of an estuary like the Chesapeake without affecting other species that rely on it for survival. ASMFC is charged with protecting migratory marine resources; it ought to gather the data it needs to establish a conservative quota on menhaden in the Chesapeake, and while studies are underway, it ought to protect what's left by slapping a temporary cap on the catch and putting in conservative size and season restrictions.

Since that's exactly what Menhaden Matter seeks, I guess I'm on their side. Firmly.


Pete Crockett repairs nets at Omega Protein, which operates a reduction fishery out of Reedville, Va., and takes tons of menhaden from the bay. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

The full, 20-page report of Menhaden Matter is on the Internet at www.menhadenmatter.org.


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