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Menhaden fishery is important enough to put it in the VMRC's hands.
IS ANYONE looking after all the little fishes in the sea? Yes, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force is, and according to its new report a lot of other people ought to be taking an interest as well.
Forage fish include such species as menhaden, herring, anchovies, and sardines. Their primary value to the ecosystem, Lenfest points out, is as food for larger fish. That role is compromised, it says, by heavy commercial harvesting.
Of interest around here, out on the Northern Neck in particular, is the health of the menhaden fishery, because huge quantities are commercially harvested by Omega Protein Inc. for processing at its Reedville plant. There the fish become fish oil for dietary supplements and fish meal to feed livestock and farmed fish.
The Chesapeake Bay's menhaden population has declined significantly over the past 50 years, dropping from 90 billion in 1960 to 18 billion in 2010. Some of that can be charged to the Bay's environmental health; various other species have suffered as well due to poor water quality and decreased subsurface habitat.
But pressure on the fishery has also been applied by Omega Protein, which harvested 160,000 metric tons of menhaden in 2010. Omega's voracious appetite for menhaden has caused every state on the Atlantic coast--except Virginia--to limit or flat ban the company from systematically extracting menhaden from its waters.
There's a reason for Virginia's hands-off posture: politics. The company donated tens of thousands of dollars to Gov. McDonnell's inaugural committee in 2010 and to the Republican-leaning Opportunity Virginia PAC, and has given lesser amounts to lesser pols from both parties.
The result has been the perennial defeat--again during the recent 2012 session--of legislation that would take the management of the fishery out of the General Assembly's hands and put it under the Virginia Marine Resources Commission where it belongs.
Doesn't this seem odd, when the VMRC runs management plans for all of the Bay's other key fisheries? They include the oyster, blue crab, shad, herring, striped bass, weakfish, bluefish, spotted sea trout, black and red drum, spot, and croaker. But not menhaden.
Does Omega Protein pose a threat to the health of the menhaden fishery and its role as a feeder of other Bay species? Logic says yes, but a trustworthy assessment is hardly forthcoming from the General Assembly, given the company's political influence.
Often referred to as the Bay's most important fish, menhaden deserve the VMRC's objective, expert management. That this hasn't happened stinks more than any of our finny friends.