A good fish story

August 07, 2006

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine deserves praise for his recent decision to restrict the harvest of menhaden. At first blush, placing an annual cap of 109,020 metric tons may not seem all that restrictive, but it required a commitment to the Chesapeake Bay's well-being and a political will sorely lacking in Virginia's legislature, which failed to pass the limit earlier this year.

Menhaden isn't the region's most popular recreational species; it's too small, oily and bony for human tastes. But striped bass regard them much the same way Popeye's pal Wimpy looked upon hamburgers - research suggests stripers prefer to eat menhaden over most anything else. In recent years, menhaden recruitment in the Chesapeake has fallen, and scientists suspect it is no coincidence that some measures of striped bass health have, too.

But menhaden are also valued by Omega Protein, the company that harvests the fish by the millions and processes them into health supplements, fertilizer and animal feed. Omega had lobbied hard to avoid a cap and argued that menhaden were still abundant and that restrictions might cost the state jobs. In the end, it was Omega that blinked; company officials announced last week that they supported Mr. Kaine's cap, which is only slightly different from what the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had originally sought.

This doesn't mean the future of Cheapeake menhaden is secured, of course. Scientists need to learn much more about the effect of Omega's harvests and what that means for other species in the food chain. But it's significant in this regard: Virginia (at the urging of Maryland and other Atlantic Coast states) took a precautionary step before an important species was put into a full-blown crisis. That's the kind of conservative (and cooperative) approach to the Chesapeake Bay that we'd like to see more often.

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