Save menhaden? Regulators wavering on subject



July 03, 2005

SO NEAR YET so far.

The quasi-government body charged with protecting fish along the East Coast will vote next month on whether to take the first step in saving one of the Chesapeake Bay's most important residents.

Or it may do nothing.

"This represents the worst of public service because they will not take a stand on the hard questions," fumed Pete Abbott of Annapolis, one of the 200 or so recreational and commercial fishermen who packed a hearing last Wednesday night to urge the folks with power to do something.

The worst of public service? Ah, if only we knew then what we know now. It seems that not only are regulators dithering, their work may be suspect, thanks to Pete Jensen, a former Department of Natural Resources employee with a foot in each camp. More about that in a moment.

Menhaden - one of the bay's last natural filters and the favorite food of striped bass - are in deep trouble here. While the population is doing fine elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard, it is in steep decline in the bay, the species' primary nursery.

The name for this problem is "localized depletion."

Now, the only major difference between the bay and the rest of the East Coast is the Virginia-based commercial fishing fleet owned by Omega Protein, Inc. Its operation uses spotter planes to find schools of menhaden and direct trawlers to scoop them up with giant nets called purse seines. The fish are ground up and turned into animal feed and the oil used for heart-healthy Omega-3 products.

However, science has yet to draw the line between Omega Protein and localized depletion, and that connection must be made before regulations can be enacted.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has known about the Chesapeake Bay problem since the early 1990s. Yet, it was only in February that members of a commission sub-group decided to stop sitting on their hands and raise them - cautiously - in the air.

Or, to put it in that dense language used by Washington paper-pushers: "The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board approved a motion to initiate the development of Addendum II to Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden."

Blah, blah, blah. Is it any wonder that people don't trust their government because they can't understand it?

So these alleged leaders offered up a plan to cap commercial menhaden fishing at current levels for two years to give scientists a chance to review the problem.

On the surface, a good start.

But unwilling to stand tall against the single company that benefits from the commercial fishery and the Virginia officials who dance to that company's tune, the members tacked on a second option: Do nothing.

Wow! What leadership. What stewardship. What profiles in courage. And what a mockery of the "vision statement" on the cover of the ASMFC handout at Thursday's meeting in Annapolis: "Healthy, self-sustaining populations for all Atlantic coast fish species or successful restoration well in progress by the year 2015."

Blah, blah, blah.

Let's see, the bureaucrats wasted more than 10 years and have 10 to go before they have to change the vision statement under truth-in-advertising laws. Of course, if the menhaden disappear, that's one less species to worry about.

But we quibble.

Luckily, no one at the hearing quibbled. One after another, fishermen rose to support a cap or to call for a temporary moratorium on the industrial harvest until this thing is fixed. They made it abundantly clear that there will be a heavy price if the regulatory commission does nothing.

"We went through this with the rockfish," said charter boat Capt. Chuck Fisher, referring to the five-year striped bass moratorium. "We're not going away. We got our way then. We'll get our way now."

Said Frank Holden, an officer with the 7,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, "The MSSA will not accept anything less than a 100 percent ban."

Said the Coastal Conservation Association's Sherman Baynard: "Menhaden should be managed for abundance."

Even Greenpeace and the Sierra Club joined in to demand action.

Maryland's senators, Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, are rustling up congressional support for about $42 million to pay for bay research projects, including $700,000 for menhaden and striped bass monitoring.

But who knows whether the menhaden managers will manage? After all, if board members have been convinced there's something seriously wrong, why would they tack on an option that would allow them to maintain the status quo and list it first, above the option calling for a cap?

Then there's the strange tale of Jensen, DNR's former No. 3 man, who retired this spring and accepted a consultant's role with the agency.

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