Bunker mentality

July 07, 2006

The annual industrial menhaden harvest isn't the only fishy thing happening in Virginia. Lawmakers, including Gov. Tim Kaine, let a deadline slip by this month for adopting a five-year cap on industrial menhaden harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay.

The lack of action is a slap at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a 15-state panel that overwhelmingly set the ceiling late last summer. Worse, it's an undeserved affront to Maryland, whose efforts to restore the health of the Chesapeake often run into barriers thrown up by our commonwealth neighbor and co-custodian of the bay.

The tiny menhaden - also known as bunker, alewife and pogy - is a boney, oily fish that serves as an important food source for bigger bay fish and other natural predators. And because it feeds on microscopic life forms and helps rid the bay of nutrients, the menhaden may have surpassed the depleted oyster as the bay's best filter feeder. Maryland hasn't permitted wholesale catching of menhaden through purse seines in its part of the bay for years. Virginia, home to menhaden industry giant Omega Protein Inc. - whose spotter planes radio locations of huge menhaden schools to waiting ships below - seems to think the little fish has higher value as fertilizer, animal feed and, recently, fish oil.

The fisheries commission's recommended annual cap of 105,000 metric tons - the average menhaden harvest during the past five years - is more than reasonable. In fact, it may be too high. But that doesn't matter anymore. Omega fought compliance with the ceiling when it was put before the Virginia legislature, and the lawmakers caved.

Governor Kaine, who should use his executive authority to put the cap in place, claims his hands are tied because he can't issue such fiats while the legislature is still in session. And while Virginia continues to play Omega's stooge, menhaden are being pulled out of the lower bay by the millions before they have a chance to make passage into Maryland waters.

The next step is for the fisheries commission to notify the U.S. secretary of commerce that Virginia has failed to implement the cap, a move that creates an opportunity for the commerce secretary to impose a moratorium on the entire commercial menhaden fishery in Virginia.

But the fisheries commission doesn't meet until Aug. 16. The commerce secretary can take up to a month to decide what, if anything, to do. And if a moratorium does come down on Virginia, it can be deferred for up to half a year. By that time, Omega will have made it unfettered through another harvest season.

We expected Omega to go for this shortsighted victory. We expected more from Virginia.

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