Menhaden catch capped in Chesapeake Bay

Atlantic states fishing regulators agreed Wednesday to cap industrial menhaden fishing in Chesapeake Bay for five years – a victory for recreational fishing and environmental groups, but one that could be challenged by a fleet that’s already been kicked out of New Jersey waters and other coastal states.

Omega Protein’s net boats would be limited to 105,800 metric tons of menhaden from Chesapeake Bay starting in 2006, after a vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission menhaden board in Alexandria, Va.

In an Aug. 11 letter to menhaden committee Chairman Jack Travelstead, Omega Vice President Toby Gascon said the company would pledge to voluntarily hold its annual harvests to 131,000 metric tons a year for five years.

The company can’t support, “and will resist,” any restrictions that it sees as not being based on the best scientific evidence, Gascon said. But it was willing to set the five-year limit on catches to address critics’ concerns, he wrote.

Board members discussed the Omega proposal for several hours Wednesday, but ultimately voted to impose the lower cap that had been sought by Menhaden Matter, an effort by Omega critics, who wanted the catch limited to an average of the last five years.

“It’s a first step. All our work begins right now,” said Ken Hinman of the Virginia-based National Center for Marine Conservation.

Menhaden have long been processed into fish meal and oil for a range of industrial and animal feed uses. Omega recently opened a new fish oil plant in Virginia designed to meet growing demand for omega-3 fish oils for human consumption.

Recreational fishing and environmental activists contend Omega is taking too many menhaden, affecting the ecosystem of Chesapeake Bay and the health of striped bass, a popular food and game fish that feed on menhaden and range up the coast to New Jersey waters.

Omega officials counter that critics don’t have scientific evidence to back their claims, and the company has indicated it may appeal any new catch limits.