Bill would halt menhaden harvest

Gilchrest says moratorium would restore food supply for striped bass

October 24, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest has introduced legislation that seeks to put a moratorium on harvesting menhaden in both state and federal waters, a move he hopes will revive the oily baitfish that are a main food source for striped bass.

The bill is squarely aimed at Omega Protein Co., an operation based on Virginia's Northern Neck that catches millions of pounds of menhaden each year. It would not affect the independent fishermen who catch menhaden to sell as bait for larger species.

"Most states have already banned menhaden fisheries," said Gilchrest, a Republican who represents Maryland's 1st Congressional District. "It seems to me that the evidence is clear. If you look at the Chesapeake Bay as a whole system, then you can recognize that you have a large striped bass population. But it's not even close to what it was."

Virginia is one of the only states on the East Coast that allows industrial fishing for menhaden. Omega's operation in Reedville uses spotter planes to find schools of menhaden, then scoops them up in enormous nets. It processes them into fish oil supplements and other products.

Gilchrest said he introduced the legislation to put pressure on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay.

After years of pressure from environmental groups, the commission last year instituted a cap on the harvest. The annual catch was limited to 109,000 metric tons.

But Omega caught only half that amount, which Gilchrest said is further indication that the species is in trouble.

Gilchrest said that he attended last weekend's event with President Bush in part to bend the president's ear about menhaden. Bush was in Maryland to announce plans for a ban on commercial striped bass fishing in federal waters, and Gilchrest said appearing with him was an opportunity to tell another side of the striped bass story -- that the fish are struggling because of a lack of food.

Gilchrest said he was also able to make the menhaden case to the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the commerce secretary and a key presidential environmental adviser.

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