U.S. Rep Wayne Gilchrest has introduced legislation that would ban menhaden fishing in state and federal East Coast waters for five years while studies are completed to determine the health of the stock and to better understand the role it plays in the Bay ecosystem.

"Menhaden are filter feeders, helping to rid the Bay of algae, which suffocates underwater grasses and causes 'dead zones' in the Bay," Gilchrest, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said when introducing the bill in October. "The species is also an important source of food for striped bass and blue fish."

Measured by weight, menhaden constitute the largest fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. Many recreational fishermen say there are too few menhaden left in the Bay to feed the abundant populations of striped bass, bluefish and other species.

Stock assessments by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a multistate agency responsible for managing migratory species, indicates that the overall menhaden stock is healthy.

Nonetheless, the ASMFC last year capped menhaden harvests in the Bay while studies are conducted to determine whether the small, oily fish suffers from "regional depletion."

Gilchrest said that limit did not go far enough. "Although progress has made at the local and state level to at least prevent further growth of the fishery in the absence of sufficient scientific data, I believe that it is time for Congress to engage in the sustainable management of menhaden," Gilchrest said.

The menhaden catch became concentrated in and near the Bay over the years as most states have closed their waters to the fishing fleet operated by Omega Protein out of Reedville, VA. Fishing is also allowed in federal waters more than 3 miles off the Atlantic Coast.

Omega, which is headquartered in Texas, processes large numbers of menhaden into dietary supplements for humans and other products.

A spokesman for the company said the legislation lacked any scientific basis.

"Congressman Gilchrest's bill to place a moratorium on the commercial fishing of Atlantic menhaden is a cavalier piece of legislation, given the precarious precedent it would set, the overwhelming contrary scientific data on the health and sustainability of the species, and the disastrous effect that would be felt by thousands of families," said Toby Gascon, Omega's director of government affairs. "We feel it is pandering, not sensible public policy."

The ASMFC last fall capped the annual commercial menhaden harvests in the Bay at 109,020 metric tons annually for five years, a number derived from the average of harvests from 2001-2005.

Some recreational fishing groups argued that the cap was too lenient, in part because it has a provision allowing an underharvest in one year to be credited to the next year's harvest, not to exceed 122,740 metric tons.

The number of small menhaden in the Bay has decreased sharply from historic levels, but scientists say it's uncertain that is related to fishing in the Chesapeake as menhaden spawn in the ocean-where the stock appears to be healthy-and the fishery generally avoids catching small fish in the Bay.