Va. governor caps Chesapeake Bay menhaden harvest

Published 5:59 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Monday imposed a cap on industrial fishing in the Chesapeake Bay of menhaden, a small, oily bait fish that filters pollutants from the water and provides hundreds of jobs on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

The annual catch limit of 109,020 metric tons will last for five years, Kaine said. He said he expects the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to approve the cap when it meets Aug. 16.

The commission last year ordered the state to comply with a cap of about 106,000 metric tons by July 1 or face a possible federal ban on commercial netting of the fish in Virginia waters.

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The General Assembly did not enact a cap, and Kaine’s hands were tied by a law that only allows the governor to regulate the menhaden fishery when lawmakers are not in session or at least 30 days before menhaden season. The Legislature remained in session 30 days before the season began May 1.

“What to do about menhaden has been very controversial,” the vacationing Kaine said in announcing the limit at First Landing State Park, where he was joined by industry, union and environmental group representatives. He said Virginia reached a consensus late last week that he thinks can be embraced by the commission, the industry and environmental groups.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. congratulated Kaine on his creativity in dealing with this issue, over which the two states have bickered for years.

“This fishery is absolutely essential to the long-term health of the bay,” Ehrlich said by satellite from Sandy Point State Park, on the banks of the bay north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Annapolis.

Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the cap as a “wonderful balance between conservation and commerce.” The foundation is part of Menhaden Matter, a coalition of environmental and fishery groups.

Greenpeace, however, issued a statement saying Kaine devised a watered-down plan that pleases the industry but will do little to protect the Chesapeake ecosystem. “Governor Kaine’s proposal is too little, too late for Chesapeake Bay,” said John Hocevar, Greenpeace oceans specialist.

The limits are aimed at Houston-based Omega Protein Corp., which harvests the key bait for the region’s blue crab fishery and employs more than 250 workers at its Reedville plant. The company processes menhaden into meals and oils for animal feeds and industrial purposes.

Menhaden is a food source for other fish in the bay, and Omega critics contend overharvesting of menhaden is stressing popular sports fish, such as striped bass.

Omega Protein supports Virginia’s cap “because this gives us the opportunity to still remain in business, still remain viable,” said Toby Gascon, Omega’s director of government affairs.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents about 120 members of menhaden crews, also supports the cap because it will save jobs, said Mark Federici, director of strategic programs.

Kaine said the limit announced Monday represents the average annual harvest from 2001 through 2005. The figure is slightly higher than the commission’s cap because it is based on more recent data, Kaine said.

The program also gives the industry a credit for the year following a fishing season when catches fall below the cap, although credits would be limited so no harvest rises above 122,740 metric tons. There is no penalty for exceeding the limit, but Kaine said Omega has agreed to stop fishing when it reaches the quota.

The five-year cap would give scientists time to learn more about the bay’s menhaden populations. Virginia and Omega Protein have agreed to collaborate on menhaden research, Kaine said.

Virginia is one of the last states that allows such industrialized fishing on the East Coast.

Maryland banned purse-seine industrial harvesting, which allows harvesting of massive schools of fish, in 1931, effectively ending fishing of menhaden in that state.

Maryland fishery managers believe Virginia’s harvesting hurts species up the bay. That’s why they’ve been pressuring Virginia for decades to limit its menhaden catch.

“Before they can make it up the bay to nourish rockfish (striped bass) and bluefish, they’re being caught in Virginia,” said Mike Slattery, assistant secretary for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

Virginia has disputed whether its fishing was hurting upper bay fish populations.