A compromise limit on Chesapeake Bay menhaden harvests proposed by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine was approved for public comment by a regional fisheries panel in August, likely averting a showdown over how to manage the small, oily fish.
Kaine in July announced the state would limit menhaden catches to 109,000 metric tons, the average annual harvest from 2001 through 2005.
Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regional fish management agency, had voted to cap the Bay catch at about 106,000 metric tons, the average catch from 2000 through 2004, for five years. But the state legislature, which has the primary responsibility for menhaden management, failed to enact that limit, which was opposed by the industry.
Had the ASMFC found the state out of compliance with its requirement, it could have requested the U.S. Commerce Secretary to impose a moratorium on menhaden catches in Virginia.
Faced with the potential moratorium, Kaine took action on his own, announcing a compromise endorsed by Virginia and Maryland, some conservation groups and Omega Protein, the company that operates the Virginia-based menhaden fishing fleet.
Kaine said the compromise would “protect the health of the menhaden fishery, foster additional scientific research and protect fishery related jobs.”
As part of the agreement, a credit would be granted to Omega Protein each year it catches fewer menhaden than the cap allows. The credit would allow the industry to make up the shortfall the following year, as long as the harvest does not rise above 122,740 metric tons.
Omega, which operates the menhaden fishing fleet in Reedville, VA, also agreed to collaborate on menhaden research—an offer it withheld when the ASMFC approved a stricter cap last year.
In a statement, the Texas-based company said it did not believe Kaine’s proposal would have a substantial effect on the operation of its Reedville-based operations, which generates more than 250 jobs.
“The governor’s proposal addresses certain important practical concerns that the company had with the original ASMFC recommendation,” said company President Joe von Rosenberg.
“The company and the commonwealth clearly share the mutual goal of ensuring both the sustainability of the vital health-giving menhaden resource and hundreds of jobs in the Northern Neck of Virginia,” he said.
Menhaden have been the focus of an increasingly heated debate in recent years over how the resource should be allocated in the Bay. Although humans do not directly consume menhaden, huge numbers are caught to produce oil—including fish oil tablets taken by humans—and animal feed.
They are also an important food for striped bass, bluefish and other predators in the Chesapeake, and recreational fishermen charge that that the industry catches so many fish that it does not leave enough to meet these fishes’ food demands.
Although the ASMFC’s stock assessment says the coastwide menhaden stock is healthy, it agreed last year—amid a large campaign by recreational fishing and conseration groups—to cap harvests in the Bay for five years while studies were done to determine whether “localized depletion” was taking place in the Chesapeake.
The action did not affect fish caught outside the Bay, or the increasing numbers caught to be used for bait.
Kaine’s compromise was endorsed by Maryland, which had sought menhaden catch limits out of concern for striped bass, and by Menhaden Matter, a coalition of environmental and recreational fishing organizations.
But not everyone supported the change. Some, including a member of New Jersey’s delegation to the ASMFC, said the higher cap rewarded Virginia for failing to comply with the commission’s original action. Buffy Baumann, a spokeswoman for the environmental group Greenpeace, called the action “a travesty.”
Jim Price, president of the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation, criticized the provision allowing catch shortfalls in one year to be transferred to the following season, saying it was counter to the ASMFC’s objective of preventing an expansion of harvests in the Bay until research was completed.
“To let that happen is unconscionable,” Price said. “That is forage that is deeply needed by a sick, starving striped bass population.”
The five-year cap is intended to allow a research program, supported mostly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office, to explore factors that affect the abundance of menhaden in the Bay.
The ASMFC is expect to take final action on the proposal at its October meeting.