Fishermen and conservationists sparred Thursday over how much to cut back the commercial catch of Atlantic menhaden along the East Coast to rebuild an ecologically and economically important fish population.
Members of conservation and recreational fishing groups called for a reduction of 25 percent to 50 percent in the commercial harvest of menhaden, pointing to scientists' warnings that overfishing was depressing their number to near-historic lows.
"For decades now, people have been taking too many of these fish, and now it's time to pay back," said Ken Hastings of Mechanicsville.
But a representative of unionized fishermen working in a Virginia fleet that nets 80 percent of all the menhaden caught urged making only a minimal cut, warning that jobs are at stake and there's still great uncertainty about the fish's status.
"There may have been a time when it was overfished, but it's not being overfished now," contended Ken Pinkard of Reedville, Va. A third-generation menhaden fisher and vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 representing the 300-worker Virginia fishing fleet that processes the fish, Pinkard urged making no more than a 10 percent cut until scientists could be certain how low the population is.
The small, oily fish isn't caught for direct human consumption, but the bulk of the harvest is processed into animal feed and diet supplements. Menhaden also are a staple in the diets of many fish and birds, including striped bass, and scientists have linked a wasting disease seen in those fish to a lack of food.
The comments came at a hearing in Calvert County called by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The multistate panel, which regulates fishing in coastal waters, is weighing whether to reduce the allowable catch, and if so, how much and how quickly.
"We know we're overfishing, but we don't know how far," said Lynn Fegley, deputy fisheries director for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, who presided over the hearing.
The commission also must decide how to split the cutback between the Virginia fishing fleet, operated by Omega Protein, and other commercial fishermen, including Maryland's watermen, who use menhaden for bait to catch other fish and crabs. Conservationists and others urged that the bulk of the cutback occur in the industrial fishery, but Pinkard said that was unfair to his members.
The commission is scheduled to decide Dec. 14 in Baltimore how much, if at all, to reduce the allowable catch and how quickly.
A series of coastwide public hearings on the issue has been disrupted by Sandy, and another Maryland hearing scheduled Tuesday in Easton was canceled. Shore fishermen and others were urged to attend a Friday hearing in Dover, Del.
The commission is taking written comments through Nov. 16.