Northern Neck fears effects of fishing limit

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Print this page by Bruce Ebert

An oily, bony fish that usually measures less than seven inches will be the focus of intense and emotional public comment starting next month. The outcome of the discussion could have a big effect on the economy of Virginia’s Northern Neck and the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), an interstate regulatory board, will invite public input on a proposal to cut back on Atlantic menhaden harvesting, possibly by about one-third, starting 2013.  The average annual landings of menhaden on the East Coast from 2000 to 2009 was about 427 million pounds. Of that total, Virginia accounted for an average of 388 million pounds a year, making Reedsville one of the largest commercial fishing ports in the U.S.

If ASMFC decides to limit the catch, Northern Neck counties fear some of the roughly 300 menhaden harvesting and processing workers employed by Houston-based Omega Protein could lose their jobs. Trickle-down losses could hit other companies.

“It would be devastating from a standpoint of employment,” says Northumberland County Administrator Kenny Eads.  “In a county of 13,000 people, where a third of them are retired, you see how small our work force is and how much Omega [which accounts for 80 percent of the menhaden catch] means.” Unemployment in Northumberland is now 7 percent; Eads estimates it would reach 15 percent with the menhaden harvest reduction.

Calling itself the world’s largest producer of omega-3 fish oil, a dietary ingredient that helps prevent heart disease, Omega Protein also produces fish meal fed to livestock, and fish-soluble products that enhance plant yield.

Company public affairs director Ben Landry says that “political science — more than marine science” is at work in the harvest reduction proposal. Only once in the past 10 years, he says, has there been hard evidence of menhaden overfishing. 

Also asking “why now” is Jack Travelstead, fisheries management chief of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Even if the menhaden population has declined, he says, “multiple decades of management of the resources shows no relationship between the size of the spawning population and the number [of offspring] they produce.” Environmental conditions play a greater role, he explains.
Pushing for limits, Chesapeake Bay Foundation science advocate Chris Moore says a management plan would rebuild the menhaden population so that both industry and habitat can thrive. The menhaden’s natural mission, Moore notes, is “to be eaten by fish, birds and mammals.”

Whatever ASMFC decides by the end of 2012, Virginia will have to go along — or risk the federal government shutting down the state’s menhaden fishery until the population is deemed satisfactory. 

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