Note the last line of the article, the whole point is that there is a problem…go figure….
CHESAPEAKE: Menhaden fishing fleet fuels controversy
By STEVE SZKOTAK • Associated Press Writer •
August 28, 2010
REEDVILLE, Va. — Atlantic menhaden scooped up by
the billions have made this Chesapeake Bay town the
No. 2 fishing port in the U.S. based on total catch
weight. Now, the last remaining East Coast fleet that
pursues the silvery fish is at the center of a debate
over a species deemed by some as the most
important in the sea.
With menhaden stocks falling to historic lows,
environmentalists, scientists and sports fishermen
say more stringent catch limits are needed. The
forage species is eaten by prized game fish and
vacuums the bay’s waters to make the
environmentally battered estuary healthier.
But regional fishing regulators insist menhaden are
not overfished, and some scientists point to
environmental reasons including climate change for
The debate is coming into sharper focus as an
obscure Virginia study panel examines whether the
regulation of Reedville’s menhaden fleet should be
shifted to a state agency that has had success
restoring the bay’s signature blue crab population
over the past two years.
So why the fuss over a pudgy fish few people
recognize by name, is about a foot in length and is
Part of it is the Omega-3 capsules popular among
Americans for the fish oil’s vaunted health benefits.
Menhaden are also used in an array of food and
commercial products, from feed for swine, poultry
and cattle to meal for fish farms.
Omega Protein Inc., a Houston-based company that
also operates a menhaden fleet in the Gulf of
Mexico, employs about 300 people at its Reedville
plant during the May-to-December season.
Spotter planes help the company’s fleet as the
vessels work the bay. Once a school is spotted,
chase vessels move in to trap the fish in a purse
seine — a net that draws its name from the way it’s
cinched like a string on a purse.
A 165-foot-long mother ship then moves in to
pump the writhing mass of menhaden into its hold,
where the fish are press cooked and dried. The ship
then returns to Omega’s processing factory in
Reedville, which was established as a menhaden
fishing port in 1874.
Residents take pride in the fleet and the community’
s long association with the fish.
“Even a lot of the new people who come here, after a
while they begin to show some pride in it, too,” said
Donald George, curator of the Reedville Fishermen’s
Proponents and opponents of the menhaden fishing
industry point to a report issued this year by the
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It
concluded that coastwide, Atlantic menhaden were
not being overfished.
“To state this species is not being overfished is to
mouth something which reveals a complete
ignorance of history,” said H. Bruce Franklin, author
of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” which
chronicles the fish in America’s history dating to the
arrival of Europeans.
At one time, schools of migrating menhaden could
stretch from Maine to Massachusetts. Jamestown
colonist John Smith described his boat sailing into
solid masses of schooling menhaden — so many of
them his crew could scoop them up with frying
The commission’s report, however, did say the
number of younger menhaden entering the
population is low, even though egg production is
high. Fisheries scientists refer to those fish under 1
as “age zero” and their maturity into the adult
population as “recruitment.”
Omega Protein spokesman Ben Landry said the
company’s scientists are convinced the commercial
fishery is not to blame for the recruitment problem.
“We’ve designed our nets so the mesh of the purse
seine is big enough for the age zeros to get out,” he
said. “As long as we’re not catching the age zero
fish, Omega Protein is not the cause for any low
Federal and state biologists monitor the catch at
Omega’s Reedville plant.
Franklin scoffs at Omega’s contention that it and its
defunct predecessors have not had a hand in
declining menhaden stocks. Fishing regulators are
too focused on measuring fish stocks based on the
needs of the fishing industry, said Franklin, an
English and American studies professor at Rutgers
“What they mean by not overfished is simple,”
Franklin said of the Atlantic States report. “There is
enough fish there for Omega Protein to make a profit
every year, and that means it’s not overfished, and
that’s all it means.”
A commission spokeswoman said the report was
peer reviewed by an independent panel of scientists.
Joe W. Smith, a fisheries biologist with the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has
helped monitor Omega’s fishing for the past 20
years from his office in Beaufort, N.C., itself a former
thriving menhaden port.
The number of fish reaching maturity seems to be
more closely tied to environmental issues than
fishing, Smith said. Some studies suggest climatic
events, and there is some indication the recruitment
issue is abating.
Omega Protein’s Chesapeake Bay catch of menhaden
is capped at 109,020 metric tons a year. The cap is
overseen by the Virginia General Assembly. The
study committee, however, wants the Virginia Marine
Resources Commission to manage the bay’s
The commission already oversees every species in
the bay and could assess menhaden stocks better
than legislators. It could also lower the catch limit,
said Sen. Ralph Northam, a Norfolk Democrat who
co-chairs the study committee, which has met once
and plans to meet again this fall.
Omega declined to participate on the study panel,
saying it is satisfied with the current arrangement.
“We prefer that 140 eyes look at it,” Landry said of
legislative oversight. “If it isn’t broke, why try to fix