Greenpeace to protest `overkill' of menhaden

Group says Va. firm robs rockfish, bluefish of traditional food source

July 23, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Greenpeace has launched flotillas of seafaring activists to save whales in the Arctic Ocean and frustrate nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific. Today, the international environmental action group plans to send protesters in boats with a more humble goal: saving the Chesapeake Bay's population of a cigar-sized bait fish called menhaden.

Organizers of the 34-year-old Amsterdam-based organization say they are set to send about 50 people with a giant floating fish skeleton and signs reading "Floating factory fishing is overkill" in 15 boats beside a Reedville, Va., menhaden processing plant.

The group is among those trying to influence a planned Aug. 17 vote of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an inter-governmental regulatory agency, on whether to limit the number of menhaden that commercial fishermen can catch each year.

Supporters of catch limits or bans argue that the menhaden population is dropping because of the industrial-scale fishing operations of Omega Protein Inc.'s Reedville plant, which takes in an estimated 100,000 metric tons of the small fish from the mouth of the bay each year. This hurts rockfish, bluefish and other larger species that eat menhaden, as well as fishermen who catch these bigger fish, advocates say.

"Factory fishing is killing the health of the bay," said Greenpeace spokeswoman Nancy Hwa. "The menhaden are a filter feeder that help clean up the bay, and Omega is using them for pig and chicken food. The waste from these animals is the leading polluter of the bay."

Houston-based Omega is the nation's largest producer of Omega 3 fish-oil capsules, a health supplement. The company employs 250 workers in Virginia with an annual payroll of $11 million.

Toby Gascon, spokesman for Omega, said the Reedville plant has been operating for a century under different corporate names, and should not face limits because there is no scientific evidence that Menhaden populations are dropping.

"Greenpeace doesn't look at the facts of the matter. This is eco-activism and eco-terrorism," Gascon said. "Shutting us down would destroy the local economy, because we are the largest employer in the Northern Neck of Virginia."

Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that data suggests that the population of mature Atlantic menhaden have dropped from about 15 billion in the 1980s to about 3 billion fish today.

Goldsborough said that Omega catches about 80 percent of the menhaden harvested by the fishing industry in the Atlantic. The company uses airplanes to spot schools, and then dispatches pairs of boats dragging large nets to surround the fish. Then a larger ship pulls up to suck the menhaden up with a vacuum-like device, Goldsborough said.

Unlike many other states, Virginia has not banned the type of nets used in the harvest.

"It's an industrial-scale operation, and it takes out of the bay over 100,000 tons of menhaden a year," Goldsborough said. "That makes Reedville the third-biggest port for fishing in the country."

Gascon said their methods for catching fish haven't changed in decades. He said the company takes about two-tenths of 1 percent of the entire Atlantic menhaden population a year, not enough to harm the species.

"There is no reason for a cap," Gascon said. "We all share a common goal in having a healthy Chesapeake Bay."

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