The Rockfish-Menhaden Dilemma

The Chesapeake Bay’s vaunted rockfish, also called Atlantic striped bass, seem to be in even more trouble than we knew. In a recent front-page article, the Washington Post reported that an epidemic of mycobacterial infection has spread to almost three-quarters of the rockfish in the Chesapeake, the fish’s primary spawning habitat. It’s a chronic “wasting disease” that scientists believe ultimately kills the fish it attacks. Fish pathologists are continuing to try to determine the cause, but this much they do know: the disease appears to be stress-related, and fishermen coastwide are catching more emaciated rockfish than ever before.

The simple fact is, the rockfish’s food of choice – the Atlantic menhaden – is being overfished in the Chesapeake region, so the rockfish aren’t getting enough to eat. A single company, Omega Protein out of Reedville, Virginia, is responsible for the menhaden depletion, unloading more than 400 million pounds of the small, oily baitfish in 2004. The menhaden are then ground up into fish meal to be fed to chickens and hogs, or rendered into “heart-healthy” fish oil at a new Omega factory. Virginia is the only state left in the East that allows the industrial harvest of menhaden.

Finally, last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) – the 15-state coordinating body responsible for managing the East Coast’s near-shore fisheries – voted to impose a cap on the menhaden catch. It wasn’t exactly drastic. It would limit the company to taking no more than its average harvest over the last five years of about 230 million pounds. Sports fishermen and environmentalists, who pushed hard for the ASMFC to finally regulate the fishery, are far from sure this will provide enough menhaden to keep rockfish healthy. The menhaden also serve as “filter feeders” that help lower the Chesapeake’s nutrient pollution levels. Many have wondered whether a temporary moratorium on menhaden might be needed – just as the rockfish needed a complete break from overfishing twenty years ago.

Now, for the wrong reasons, a moratorium might be just what’s on the horizon. In Virginia, the General Assembly must give its blessing to menhaden fishing regulations. And, thanks to Omega Protein’s lobbying effort – as well as its campaign contributions to the majority of members of a Virginia House subcommittee – three bills that would have implemented the harvest cap didn’t make it to the floor for a vote. That left it up to Governor Timothy Kaine to impose the cap, but he claimed that a quirk in Virginia law tied his hands. A spokesman said the governor was “disappointed” that the General Assembly didn’t follow through on the ASMFC’s mandate, and “is concerned about the potential for a moratorium.” That’s because, under federal law first enacted to protect the rockfish, any state that refuses to comply with ASMFC regulations faces a potential shut-down of its offending fishery. An environmental coalition, Menhaden Matter, now plans to ask the U.S. Commerce Department to find Virginia in violation.

That’s as it should be. Omega Protein simply doesn’t want anybody telling them what to do, even though the proposed cap is hardly going to put a dent in the company’s pocketbook. In late March, a new study by researchers from nine different institutions suggested that omega-3 fats – the main constituent of fish oils, including menhaden, thought to protect against heart disease – are really of no use at all. “Heart-healthy” omega-3 vitamins look like they’re turning out to be a myth. That does not bode well for Omega Protein’s new $20-million fish oil plant. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the Zapata Corporation – a holding company owned by billionaire Malcolm Glazer (Omega is its only operating business) – recently announced intent to sell its majority interest in the menhaden company.

After the Post’s article on the mycobacterial outbreak came out, the wholesale price of Chesapeake rockfish plummeted in two weeks from $2.60 to $1.50 a pound. That led Maryland’s Governor Robert Ehrlich to bring some commercial fishermen to his mansion to partake of a 38-inch striper in his kitchen, in an attempt to quell public concerns. But the governor should have seized the moment to put pressure on his neighboring state to follow through on the menhaden cap. The Baltimore Sun didn’t shy away from the issue, writing in a March 19 editorial: “Reining in Omega…is a prudent step to take.” The Post also editorialized: “Omega should be warned that it courts disaster if it continues to resist.”

Last summer, Greenpeace conducted a blockade of Omega’s fleet of a dozen factory-sized vessels. If the company thinks it can get away with unrestricted harvest this summer, perhaps more such action will be in the offing. Or perhaps the federal authorities will teach the company – and the Virginia legislators – a lesson by imposing a menhaden moratorium.