A Victory for the Bay
Friday, December 14, 2012, is a day that makes a difference. On that day, menhaden — a fish virtually inedible to humans and once numerous but now endangered — gained recognition and protection as a vital component of our complex marine ecosystem.
Meeting in Baltimore, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission declared its intent to protect Atlantic menhaden from continued commercial over-fishing, which has reduced the species to eight percent of its historic population.
Rockfish season is over, but something is always biting somewhere on the Tidewater. Nice white perch, particularly delicious this time of year, can be caught in 35 to 60 feet of water over hard bottom around the Bay Bridge, at Hackett’s, Tolley, in the Severn around the bridges and in some deep water holes at the mouths of tributaries. Bloodworms, minnows and small jigs will get them.
Whitetail and sika deer, muzzle-loaders: thru Dec. 29
This action begins the restoration of this keystone species. For rockfish and most other Atlantic game fish, they are an essential forage fish. For the Bay, menhaden play a vital role in filtering plant detritus and algae, which not only cloud our waters and inhibit the growth of submerged vegetation but are also a major cause of oxygen-depleted dead zones.
This historic meeting was, on the surface, an exercise in democracy within the Commission, energized by the relentless efforts of recreational fishing and environmental groups all along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida. Among those advocates are the Coastal Conservation Association, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association and Clean Water Action.
Behind the scenes, these advocates battled both the little fish’s biggest catcher, Omega Protein Corporation, and Virginia, the only Atlantic state that continues to allow the harvest of this fish for use for anything but bait. Both have long resisted efforts to manage the harvest for the common good.
Omega’s profitable capture and rendering operation is located at the mouth of the Chesapeake, in Reedville, Virginia. The parent company is based in Houston. Annually and historically, this company takes more than 80 percent of all menhaden harvested in the Atlantic, 382 million pounds in 2011. It is largely responsible for depleting the species, especially in Bay waters.
Virginia hoped to protect the jobs at the Reedville rendering operation, the only one of its kind still permitted to operate. Omega argued in preliminary proceedings that Commission studies were wrong and that menhaden were more numerous.
The Commission resisted, voting to reduce the allowable harvest of menhaden for 2013 by 20 percent. This is not an insignificant reduction, but in context, it is less than it might seem as Omega has boosted its take by more than 20 percent since 2008.
Now the writing is on the wall. Larger reductions in future harvests seem likely as more comprehensive scientific population measurements are made and target goals are set for species recovery.
However, the fight for its conservation is far from over. Omega Protein is already developing legal challenges to the decision. There is also the problem of getting Virginia to enforce Omega’s compliance with Commission mandates. A bill has already been filed in the Virginia legislature to withdraw the state from Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
But the first battle has been won.