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Saving a fishery
In the end, it's up to the General Assembly to make sure the menhaden fishery does not cease to exist

Date published: 11/11/2012

IT IS NOT overly dramatic to say that judgment day is near for the beleaguered menhaden, a Chesapeake Bay species in such demand that its very existence is threatened.

Because of the oily fish's commercial and ecological importance, it has been carefully studied. It is harvested in untold numbers by Omega Protein of Reedville, which turns the fish into animal and livestock feed, as well as fish-oil dietary supplements for humans. Menhaden is also a favored bait fish for commercial fishermen.

But it is also of immense importance to the bay's ecosystem as both a water-filtering agent and food fish for striped bass (rockfish), bluefish, and other bay denizens, as well as for ospreys and brown pelicans.

The disturbing fact is, however, that 65 percent of the adult menhaden population is removed from East Coast waters yearly. Omega Protein harvested 160,000 metric tons of menhaden in 2010, or 80 percent of the total harvest. The fishery's population has declined precipitously, from 90 billion in 1960, to 70 billion in 1985, to 18 billion in 2010. Menhaden once supplied about 70 percent of an adult rockfish's diet. Today that has dwindled to 8 percent, and researchers say rockfish are showing signs of malnourishment and early death.

Other East Coast states have already taken action. Clearly, better management is needed in Virginia, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's plan for just that will be aired at its Dec. 14 meeting. The commission is accepting public comment on its plan through this Friday. No moratorium is being plotted--merely harvesting limits designed to restore the menhaden population over time to sustainable numbers.

Omega Protein has argued that poor water quality explains the fishery's decline--not overfishing. But it is the menhaden, in large numbers, that help improve bay water quality; moreover, it's in Omega Protein's best interest to see the fishery rebound.

Because of its commercial importance--thousands of Virginia jobs are directly or indirectly involved--menhaden is the only fishery managed by the Virginia General Assembly, which must approve any plan proposed by the fisheries body. The General Assembly and Gov. McDonnell need to appreciate every aspect of this issue and act accordingly.