© October 23, 2011
Menhaden, as many Virginians know, are regulated by the politicians in Richmond, the only species to get such special treatment.
The reason for lawmakers’ interest in an ugly, oily baitfish? Because when menhaden is reduced to its parts – oil and everything else – it becomes a valuable industrial product, used in lipstick and margarine and animal feed and omega-3 supplements.
The beginning of the commercial transformation of menhaden happens in Reedville, on the Northern Neck, where a “reduction” plant employs hundreds of Virginians. Omega Protein, which owns that plant, has contributed more than $200,000 to Virginia politicians in the past decade.
Menhaden are also the target of a growing baitfish industry on the East Coast, serving recreational and commercial fishermen. According to a report in the Chesapeake Bay Journal, the menhaden reduction industry used 183,000 metric tons of fish in 2010; the baitfish industry caught another 44,000 tons.
It would seem self-evident that taking more than 225,000 tons would have a deleterious effect on menhaden, not to mention the other species that depend on it for food.
For years, data – much provided by industry – have shown that menhaden were doing just fine despite anecdotes and preliminary research showing trouble.
Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission revised its estimates of the effect that industrial fishing was having. The commission concluded menhaden were being overfished and had been for most of the past 54 years.
Recreational fishermen didn’t need to be convinced. They have argued for years that the decline in sportfish is directly related to the take of menhaden. It’s a contention that pits the giant recreational fishing industry in Hampton Roads and the bay against one small plant in Reedville and the Northern Neck.
The General Assembly has so far remained unmoved, defending the menhaden industry from challenges mounted by Sen. Ralph Northam, as well as Dels. Bob Purkey, Barry Knight and John Cosgrove.
Their cause may have a significant new ally: Better science.
The ASMFC is in the midst of public hearings reconsidering the management of menhaden on the East Coast. Among the options are several that would severely curtail menhaden harvest, based on new data and revised estimates.
For years now, politics – instead of science – have ruled menhaden regulation in Virginia. The ASMFC has an opportunity to change that.