The oily politics of an oily fish

Last week, Omega Protein could legally return its boats to the Chesapeake Bay, to again start mining Virginia’s waters for menhaden. If there’s any sense left in Washington and Richmond, this will be the last season that Omega gets unfettered access to the state’s beleaguered Bay.

In August, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to limit Omega to 105,783 tons of the little fish during the 2006 harvest. That number represents no hardship. Still, Omega went ballistic, threatening to sue, warning ominously of job losses in Reedville, where it is the biggest employer.
Sadly, the fisheries commission had to rely on Virginia’s General Assembly to actually impose limits on Omega, which has given thousands of dollars to candidates in recent years. Lawmakers did nothing, once again choosing business interests over the health of the Bay.

So Omega, making plain who decides menhaden policy in Virginia, plans to add another boat to its fleet for the 2006 season. The fox guarding the chicken coop never had it this easy.

Even before Omega’s latest affront, the fisheries commission may have been forced to rule Virginia in violation of regulations, which could lead to the closing of the entire menhaden fishery. That could lead to the aforementioned loss of hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars for Virginia.

A new study commissioned by conservation and sport-fishing groups puts some real numbers to that warning. The commercial menhaden fishery, the study concludes, contributes about 395 jobs and $45 million to the Virginia economy.

But that all comes at a cost. Menhaden filter the heavily polluted Bay. According to the study, there is evidence that Omega’s operations are damaging other fish populations.

Anglers pursuing species that eat menhaden — striped bass, speckled trout, bluefish — contribute $400 million a year and 2,543 jobs to Virginia’s economy, according to the report.

Endangering all that to allow a Texas-based company to take as many fish as it wants from Virginia waters seemed a little strange to the study’s authors, too.

“I was surprised at how small the real benefits are from the commercial side and how, given this, the state continues to protect the menhaden fishery so intensely,” Rob Southwick, a Maryland economist who helped draft the report, told Pilot staff writer Scott Harper. “Why it’s an issue is pretty amazing.”

It’s an issue because Omega is for sale and trying to make itself look good for a potential suitor. Any limit on the menhaden catch might depress its sales price, which doesn’t inspire company leaders to compromise.

Sport fishing and menhaden fishing could easily coexist in the Bay; they have for a hundred years. Omega, though, doesn’t seem interested.

“Unfortunately, everybody doesn’t have the ability to buy $50,000 sport boats and go fishing in their spare time,” spokesman Toby Gascon told Harper, making clear that Omega sees the battle as all or nothing. “Most people have to go to work, and that’s what we want to keep providing.”

No matter how much damage the company and its policies do to the Bay or the state’s economy.