Va. agrees to fishing limit

Regional plan aims to restrict hauls of menhaden, species considered important for bay


Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine agreed yesterday to comply with a regional plan to prevent any increase in fishing for menhaden, a species viewed as important to the Chesapeake Bay's health.

Kaine's decision means that the main company harvesting the fish in the bay, Omega Protein, is expected to have to limit its catch to 109,020 metric tons a year, state officials said. Omega manufactures fish oil at a plant in Reedville, Va.

Menhaden, oily fish about the size of a hot dog, are not served in restaurants or kitchens but are a key source of food for striped bass and other larger fish, and they help filter the Chesapeake Bay.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article last week and a column Sunday about Virginia's decision to limit menhaden fishing, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker was incorrectly quoted as describing the agreement as a compromise. In fact, Baker called the agreement "a wonderful balance between conservation and commerce."
The Sun regrets the errors.

The menhaden population is thought to have fallen over the past decade, and environmentalists have pushed for protections or a ban on harvesting them.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, composed of state officials from Maine to Florida, voted in August last year to limit the menhaden catch at 105,000 metric tons a year, the average catch of the previous five years. With updated catch data from the end of 2005, that average would be 109,020 metric tons. Omega has agreed to that limit, and Virginia has agreed to enforce it.

"Congratulations on an outstanding agreement," Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said during a news conference in Virginia that was linked by video to an announcement by Maryland officials at Sandy Point State Park.

"The agreement being struck today is a great compromise between conservation and commerce."

The five-year limit is subject to commission approval, which Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. predicted it will get. The commission can't force states to adopt fishing limits but can ask the federal government to do so if states refuse.

"This is a tough issue, particularly in Virginia. You have shown great leadership and a conservation ethic," Ehrlich told Kaine yesterday. He was referring to the more than 250 people employed by Omega's Reedville plant, which has an annual payroll of at least $11 million a year. With the industry warning of layoffs, the Virginia Legislature did not act this year to implement the commission's plan.

The main change between the commission's plan and the agreement announced yesterday is that the agreement allows more flexibility for the company. If Omega caught less than the five-year average, it could carry over the difference into the next year, meaning it could harvest more that season, but not more than 122,740 metric tons.

The concession to the industry headed off the possibility of a lawsuit from Omega, which might have fought the ban in court, Kaine said.

"You can come up with solutions without everybody at the table. ... But then there's a lawsuit," he said.

Ehrlich said, "Any solution that bypasses the judicial system is a positive solution."

Omega also agreed to help fund research into the menhaden population.

Toby Gascon, spokesman for Omega, said the agreement was "negotiated" with Virginia. "Omega Protein has long been a partner with the commonwealth of Virginia," he said. "This allows us to still remain in business, to still remain viable."

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