Menhaden defense fund: lots of hot air, some roiled water



August 14, 2005

THE MINUTE they showed up at the Annapolis hearing on the proposed cap on commercial menhaden fishing, it was clear Greenpeace members would change the tenor of the debate.

Goodbye, Andrea Bocelli. Hello, Luciano Pavarotti.

No offense to the gentle folks who have been fighting the good fight for years, but Greenpeace knows how to wage a robust, bare-knuckles public war against a bully.

On Wednesday, the regulatory board that oversees Atlantic Coast fish will vote on whether to limit the commercial menhaden industry in the Chesapeake Bay while scientists figure out why the menhaden population is crashing.

The vote of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has been two decades in the making. The industry, which for years manhandled the regulatory board, has lost a tiny bit of its muscle, allowing responsible discussions to take place.

But those who do Omega Protein's bidding still control enough votes to gum up the regulatory process, and with it the chance to quickly improve conditions in the Chesapeake Bay, where the menhaden stock is at record lows.

Plenty of folks in the recreational fishing community talk the talk in Internet chat rooms. They complain about sick fish and dead zones and no menhaden and do-nothing politicians and blah, blah, blah.

And that's all they do. And that's all they'll ever do.

It's no wonder Omega and its puppets feel no pressure to change.

So Greenpeace, in its time-honored tradition, opted for a little "street heat," as labor activists call sidewalk picketing, or, in this case, water disorder.

In four inflatable boats, members went out near Cape Charles, Va., last Tuesday and scattered schools of menhaden that were the target of the company's efficient "leave no fish behind" trawler operation.

At least for one day, those fish weren't vacuumed up and ground into fish oil. They lived to filter bay water and be part of the natural food chain.

But certain Maryland folks are horrified by this display of "lawlessness," never mind that the Coast Guard was on the scene and arrested no one.

They must have confused Maryland's motto. It's "Manly Deeds, Womanly Words," not the other way around, guys.

What's wrong with a little "in your face" when the visage in question is attached to a Texas-based company owned by a billionaire? If folks living in the colonies a couple of hundred years ago had listened to the Tories instead of the Tea Party boys, we'd all be singing "God Save the Queen" at Camden Yards cricket matches.

Some xenophobic recreational fishermen put Greenpeace in PETA's leaky boat and fear Greenpeace will turn around and try to take away their hobby.

Rubbish. PETA wants Boy Scouts to give up fishing merit badges and uses billboards to make fun of people with cancer. Greenpeace fights over-harvesting of whales and bottom trawling that scours the ocean floor and destroys marine life. Big difference.

However, more annoyingly, these armchair activists also act as if they have exclusive rights to the menhaden issue, calling it "our cause."

Fine. It's your cause? Do something. Do something besides complain. Join Coastal Conservation Association. Stop taking Omega fish oil pills. Do something and I'll put it right here in this column. I dare you.

Naturally, with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission vote taking place in Virginia, those beholden to Omega are gearing up for mischief.

The Board of Supervisors of Northumberland County, home of Omega's fleet, voted last month to ask the ASMFC to remove one of Maryland's three representatives.

His offense? Speaking his mind.

In discussing the plight of the menhaden, Bruno Vasta suggested that shutting down Omega's fleet and processing plant and eliminating 250 jobs might be a small price to pay to save a fish vital to the bay.

Vasta pointed out that in similar situations where a natural resource or public welfare has been threatened, the government has bought out or bailed out those in the affected industry. Think cod fish, tobacco and Chrysler.

To Northumberland, those were fighting words. The town fathers passed a resolution praising Virginia's "three well-respected appointments" to the ASMFC and asked for the removal of Vasta "due to his lack of knowledge on the subject matter and his unwillingness to be objective on the issues."

I guess well-respected Virginia member state Sen. John Chichester was being objective when he took $4,150 in campaign contributions from Omega Protein.

And I guess well-respected Virginia member Christine Davenport was being knowledgeable and objective when she told the Newport News Daily Press: "[The opponents] want to change something without listening to the scientific data. I've listened to the same scientists for years that say there's not pressure being put on the fish."

So, if the scientific evidence is there, why is ASMFC spending $500,000 this year to begin a menhaden study?

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