Virginia wastewater treatment plant operators have injected themselves into a fishery management debate, saying the panel that oversees Atlantic menhaden needs to account for the fish’s role in the Bay ecosystem.

The Virginia Association of Municipal Wastewater Agencies hailed a February action by the Atlantic States Fisheries Management Commission to restructure its Menhaden Management Board by reducing the influence of the fishing industry as an “excellent opportunity to re-evaluate the management of this important species.”

But that same action has drawn the wrath of many state and federal lawmakers from North Carolina and Virginia — the only East Coast states with a menhaden fishery — who complain the ASMFC is giving other jurisdictions a 4-to-1 voting advantage in menhaden management.

“This proposal is, of course, unfair and unjustified,” said Sen. Jesse Helms, R-NC, in a letter to the ASMFC. “It is akin to ‘taxation without representation.’”

Menhaden management has become increasingly controversial in the Bay and along the coast, as federal estimates indicate the population of the oily fish is near an all-time low.

Critics say the decline threatens the health of other fish, such as striped bass and bluefish, which rely heavily on menhaden for food. The menhaden is also an important filter feeder and can help clear water of algae.

Because of concerns about the menhaden decline, the ASMFC is this year rewriting its management plan for the species; a draft is expected by summer.

Also, the ASMFC in February opened membership on its Menhaden Management Board, which would adopt any new plan, to all East Coast states. That action stemmed from complaints that half of the board’s members represented industry — making it the only ASMFC board with any industry members.

In letters to ASMFC, lawmakers complained that ASMFC was bowing to pressure from sportsmen and others who want commercial fishing curtailed. While the menhaden population is low, scientists say the fishery is not to blame, but poor reproduction. And, because many large spawners remain in the stock, the reproductive potential remains high.

In his letter, Helms charged that the ASMFC was responding to “special interests whose actual agenda is the elimination of the commercial fishing industry.”

“My folks must have a level playing field that this ill-advised proposal seeks to tilt to states without a menhaden fishery who will dictate regulations that would needlessly cost North Carolina business and jobs,” Helms wrote.

John H. Chichester, president protempore of the Virginia state Senate, called menhaden a “well-managed and healthy resource.” While Chichester said some change in the management board may be justified, the February change was “flawed and should be rejected in favor of one that allows those states with active menhaden fisheries to afford some protection to these traditional activities.”

Meanwhile, Virginia wastewater treatment plant operators wrote ASMFC that managers need to make sure that there were enough menhaden in the Bay both to support other fish species and to improve water quality by filtering algae.

So far, they noted, efforts to control the growth of water-fouling algae in the Chesapeake have focused strictly on nutrient control, but “there is a growing body of evidence that the rehabilitation of filter-feeding stocks such as the menhaden are essential to meeting the restoration goals for the Bay and its tributaries.”

“The Bay Program continues to call for even greater reductions of nutrients while the influence of menhaden management on water quality simultaneously continues to be ignored,” Terrell J. Reid, president of the Virginia Association of Municipal Wastewater Agencies, said in a letter to ASMFC.

“We view this as fundamentally inequitable and in need of immediate attention,” he wrote. “The fisheries industry should also be called upon to do its fair share in effecting water quality like other stakeholders.”

The Hampton Roads Sanitation District wrote a letter expressing similar concerns.