Multistate commission takes step toward limit on menhaden harvest

Harm to bay feared

Md. joins majority in 12-3 vote

February 10, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Government regulators took the first step yesterday toward imposing a limit on the commercial harvesting of menhaden, a tiny fish that is regarded as critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Meeting in Virginia, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to limit to current levels the number of menhaden taken from the bay.

The limit is aimed at Omega Protein, a company based in Reedville, Va., that uses airplanes and huge nets to find and remove millions of menhaden from the bay each year.

The Reedville plant turns oil from the fish into diet supplements containing Omega 3 fatty acids, which are thought to help prevent heart disease, and renders the rest into products for animal feed and cosmetics.

For years, environmentalists have worried that Omega's methods might have depleted the menhaden stock, particularly the juvenile fish.

Menhaden are a major part of the diet of rockfish. And because menhaden filter pollution as they feed, their decline has has harmed the bay's water quality, environmentalists say.

Yesterday's 12-3 vote could limit the harvest from the bay to its current level of about 121,000 tons a year.

Over the next six months, the multistate commission will hold public hearings and further refine its plan. The panel's management board will make a final decision this summer. If the board votes for a limit, it would likely become effective before the 2006 fishing season begins.

Omega officials could not be reached for comment yesterday. The Houston-based company is the only industrial menhaden fishery in the bay and one of two on the East Coast. Every state but Virginia and North Carolina has banned them.

Maryland was among the states voting in favor of the limit yesterday. Maryland Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks said the decision was reached with input from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and advisers.

"We have no desire to handicap or straitjacket an industry in another state, but we need to make fair and balanced ecosystem decisions that are well informed," Franks said.

Virginia, Massachusetts and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission voted against the harvest limits.

Maryland's position was lauded by environmental and recreational fishing organizations.

"Maryland stepped up and took the lead, and that was really crucial to making it happen," said Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. He said he is grateful that the vote will trigger public hearings. Sport fishermen and environmentalists have been hoping for a forum to discuss the menhaden issue.

Scientific studies have been inconclusive on whether the Reedville operation has resulted in a shortage of menhaden in the bay, in part because the commission manages menhaden all along the coast and doesn't know how many are in the Chesapeake Bay.

Over the next few years, researchers hope to further study the bay's food chain.

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