Maryland environmentalists and recreational anglers are urging fisheries regulators to rein in a Virginia processing plant that is scooping millions of menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay.
The Marylanders say Omega Protein is taking so many of the oily little filter-feeders out of the bay for its products that rockfish, which usually feed on menhaden, are starving to death. They are hoping that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which meets tomorrow in New Hampshire to take up the matter, will place catch limits on the company.
"We're simply asking that some type of restriction be placed on the current fishery so that no more damage is done while we try to identify what the problems are and how to correct them," said Sherman Baynard, fisheries chairman for the state's Coastal Conservation Association, a recreational fishing group.
But Omega Protein, which turns menhaden oil into Omega 3 fatty oils for heart-healthy humans and renders the rest into products for animal feed and cosmetics, says there is no evidence that a shortage of menhaden is the result of overfishing. Further, company officials say, there is no correlation between their operations and the health of Maryland's rockfish. The company says menhaden would not provide ecological benefits to the bay anyway because striped bass would eat them.
"We're sick and tired of these constant attacks from these recreational groups on claims that have no merit," said Toby Gascon, Omega's director of governmental affairs. "I'm not going to sit here and be so bold as to say I'm completely right and they're completely wrong, but Omega's position has always been `let the science decide.'"
However, the science is inconclusive as to whether menhaden are being overfished.
Omega uses highly efficient methods to catch menhaden that are at least two years old. It is the younger, juvenile fish, though, that have struggled over the past decade. Both sides point out that there are more rockfish in the bay in the wake of a successful fishing moratorium that ended in the 1990s, which means that more fish are competing for the menhaden.
Matthew Cieri, a Maine fisheries biologist who led the fisheries commission's menhaden research group, said the scientists aren't sure they can link what is taken out of the bay with the next year's crop.
Furthermore, the commission manages the menhaden fishery along the entire Atlantic Coast, and scientists don't know how many menhaden are in the Chesapeake Bay. Until researchers develop tools to look at food-chain issues within the bay, Cieri said, they aren't going to know the culprits.
"Whenever it comes to fish, it's difficult," Cieri said. "It's hard enough counting the trees in the forest - and they don't move."
Those who urge that restrictions be placed on Omega say there's enough evidence that the company's methods are responsible for the depleted stock. Omega is one of the few companies in the nation using purse seines to net menhaden - a method that is illegal in every state on the East Coast but Virginia and North Carolina.
Omega's spotter planes fly over the bay, looking for a black mass of the baitfish, also known as pogies or bugfish. When the pilot finds a school of menhaden, he dispatches two of Omega's 170-foot ships. The nets are closed at the bottom, confining the menhaden, which are taken to the plant in Reedville, in Virginia's Northern Neck, for processing. It is a highly efficient method that Omega says nets 100 metric tons of menhaden each year.
Anglers and environmentalists argue that even if the science does not prove that Omega is responsible for the shortage, common sense makes a strong case against the company.
Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a former Atlantic States fisheries commissioner, said regulators must manage menhaden with regard to how they interact with other species and look as well at bay-specific issues.
But he worries that without immediate catch restrictions on Omega, the fishery will soon be in crisis.
`Don't have the luxury'
"It will be easier when we have those tools, but we don't have the luxury to wait so long," Goldsborough said. "You can't let science be a crutch."
After years of what they consider the commission's inaction on menhaden, Goldsborough and the anglers decided that they had waited long enough. Last month, they formed a group, Menhaden Matter, to make their case for fishing restrictions and better management.
The coalition includes the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation and the group Environmental Defense, and operates a Web site, menhadenmatter.org.
The Atlantic Menhaden Coalition, which includes Omega and another industry group, the Menhaden Resource Council, has its own Web site, menhadenfacts.org.
Nancy Wallace, the commission's fisheries management plan coordinator, said she's not sure what to expect at tomorrow's meeting, given the friction that surrounds the issue.
"The conversation could go in any direction," she said.
If the commission were to take steps to limit Omega's catch, the decision would have to go through a public hearing process that would probably take months.
Gascon said Omega isn't worried. Two weeks ago, it opened a new, $17 million plant in Reedville and now employs about 250 people, making the company the Northern Neck's largest employer.
"The health of the menhaden is more important to Omega Protein than [to] any of these groups combined," Gascon said. "If science ever did come out to say there was a problem with menhaden fishing, we would be the first ones putting catch limits on ourselves."