Activists urge Virginia governor to limit menhaden catch in bay


With a deadline looming for Virginia to limit its industrial harvest of menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay, conservation activists called on the state's governor yesterday to act promptly or risk a federally imposed shutdown of its fish oil industry.

But a spokesman for Gov. Tim Kaine said he could not legally act at this time, and suggested that there was no real prospect of either limiting or closing the menhaden industry this year.

Tomorrow is the effective date of a five-year limit on industrial menhaden harvesting in the bay adopted overwhelmingly last August by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission, a federally sanctioned group representing 15 eastern states, placed a ceiling on the harvest to give scientists time to investigate why there has been a drop in the population of the small, oily fish that is a primary food source for striped bass and other large bay fish.

Fish conservation activists warned that the federal government could impose a total moratorium on fishing for menhaden in Virginia unless the governor meets tomorrow's deadline for adopting the commission's annual harvest limit of 105,000 metric tons, a figure that represents the average annual catch over the last five years.

"It is now his responsibility to use executive authority to implement that cap and bring the state into compliance," said Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation.

If Virginia does not meet the deadline, the commission could ask the U.S. secretary of commerce to halt fishing for menhaden in Virginia. The panel is scheduled to meet Aug. 16.

Kaine has indicated a willingness to cap the state's menhaden industry, dominated by Omega Protein Inc., which processes fish oil at its refinery in Reedville, Va.

But Kevin Hall, the governor's press secretary, said that Kaine cannot act now because Virginia law does not allow him to do so within 30 days of a legislative session. The state's legislature has been meeting off and on since winter because of an unresolved budget standoff and may meet again in September.

Hall said it was unlikely that the commerce secretary would ban menhaden fishing in Virginia before the catch season ends in November. He suggested that the state has until next year to resolve the issue.

But activists warned that failure to act could harm the bay's fish - and runs the risk that the federal government could act more quickly, effectively closing Omega's business. They - and some scientists - suspect that declines in the bay's menhaden stock could be linked to wasting and disease seen in striped bass.

Maryland does not permit the large-scale harvests of menhaden as practiced by Omega, which deploys a fleet of fishing vessels guided by airborne spotters to encircle large schools of the small fish in nets. Maryland fishermen catch 2 million to 3 million pounds of menhaden a year, almost exclusively for use as bait in catching crabs and other fish.

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