|| |—| || |LITTLE BIG FISH: Menhaden are a vital link in the ecosystem of Chesapeake Bay. Photo: Jason Y. Wood| In the April 2005_SWS_, I wrote in this space about the battle to put a cap on the menhaden harvest in Chesapeake Bay. The group Menhaden Matter, an umbrella organization for a number of conservation groups, was waging war with Omega Protein, the key player in the menhaden reduction industry. At stake was a cap on the number of metric tons (105,783) that Omega could literally suck from the waters of Chesapeake Bay.
With fewer and fewer bunker seen in the waters of the Bay, scientists were alarmed by some significant warning signs caused by their absence. Historically, menhaden made up 77 percent of the diet of striped bass in the Bay. By 2000, that number had shrunk to 21 percent. In addition, scientists feared that this lack of food would make stripers more susceptible to mycobacteriosis, a disease that affects vital organs and causes unsightly lesions on the skin of infected fish. Even worse, some studies showed that up to 70 percent of Bay stripers are infected. And that’s just stripers. As the menhaden go, so goes the Bay. You’d be hard pressed to find too many fish that don’t rely on them as a food source.
No wonder then we applauded when it seemed that Menhaden Matter had won the battle. Through their diligence, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) drafted a plan to put a cap on the number of menhaden that could be landed. The cap would last five years, allowing scientists to study the health of the menhaden population without further intrusion from Omega Protein. After that period, a final decision on the menhaden fishery would be made. The draft plan passed.
Seemed logical. Omega Protein’s cap was based on the average number of tons of menhaden they landed for the first five years of the decade. But recently Omega found a friend in Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, who has managed to quash the recommended limit by encouraging the Virginia House of Delegates to question the jurisdiction of the ASMFC.
Next, a series of meetings will determine if Virginia is out of compliance, which, by law, could result in a shutdown of the fishery. Or nothing will be done, and greed will once again trump the good work of those who care.
What can you do? If you live in Virginia, write to the governor and tell him of your displeasure. And if you’re so inclined, fire a letter off to McDonnell and tell him…well, you decide what to tell him. If you live elsewhere, write your ASMFC representatives and ask them to stay the course.