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Better days for Bay?

Date published: 3/1/2013

IF YOU were the Chesapeake Bay, you'd be feeling pretty good about the recently concluded session of the Virginia General Assembly. Not only were you earmarked another $216 million in a rejiggering of the commonwealth's biennial budget, but harvest limits were placed on one of your most important fisheries, too.

The new protections afforded menhaden--the bony, oily, but commercially coveted fish--are a long-awaited legislative prize for the Bay. A dwindling population of the fish, which is one of the estuary's most efficient cleaning agents and a key member of the its food chain, has been blamed on over-harvesting by Omega Protein of Reedville. The company turns the fish into livestock feed, pet food, and human fish-oil dietary supplements.

The legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Montross), and Dels. Edward Scott (R-Culpeper) and Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), aligns Virginia with other Atlantic Coast states in adopting the 20 percent annual harvest reduction urged by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Gov. McDonnell signed the legislation, and it is effective immediately.

Menhaden's reduced numbers have been linked to the struggles of other key Bay species, such as striped bass and blue crabs, for which menhaden are a top menu selection. That also makes it a favorite bait fish.

Because of its commercial value, menhaden is the only Chesapeake fishery actually managed by the General Assembly rather than by state marine-resources experts. Short of turning the fishery's management over to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, it was important for lawmakers to take this step despite pressure from Omega Protein, which questions allegations about the menhaden's lessening numbers and warns that harvest limits may force it to jettison workers.

The increase in Bay funding was included in the budget Mr. McDonnell presented to the legislature. That helped garner wide support for the measure from the beginning. The budget amendment provides funding necessary for upgrading municipal wastewater-treatment plants, controlling stormwater runoff, and assisting farmers with soil- and water-conservation practices. These are the leading sources of nutrient pollution in the Bay that contribute to algae blooms and, in turn, dead zones--oxygen-deprived areas unable to support life.

Various reports find that efforts to restore the Bay's health over the past 30 years have met with only marginal success. Perhaps these latest developments will help put momentum on the Chesapeake's side.