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Lawmakers, meet Mark Twain

Members of the House Environmental Matters Committee should have boned up on their Mark Twain Wednesday instead of swallowing the rubbish from lobbyists for menhaden-killing Omega Protein Inc.

Twain once advised that it was better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

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The hearing in question concerned a bill filed by Dels. Peter Murphy and David Rudolph that would close Maryland's marketplace to all Omega 3 products that contain fish oil from menhaden.

The bill is supported by Maryland recreational fishing groups and the state's charter boat captains.

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As a practical matter, taking the state's 5.5 million consumers out of the equation is not likely to bring down the Virginia-based fleet and processing plant. There are still 49 other states whose consumers could continue ingesting heart-healthy supplements and butter-like spreads and smearing their faces with cosmetics made from the bony fish that filter Chesapeake Bay water and are the primary food source for striped bass.

The Omega fleet, based on Virginia's Northern Neck, get the fish first before they can reach Maryland waters. Using spotter planes, the ships deploy giant purse-like nets to capture entire schools of menhaden. The fish are unloaded in Reedville, Va., where they are reduced to their useful parts.

On the East Coast, all but Virginia and a small portion of North Carolina have banned the so-called reduction fishery.

To protect Omega, the Virginia General Assembly has decided it will "regulate" menhaden rather than have the professionals at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission do so. It is the only fish with that special status.

"We've got to do something to save this fish," Murphy testified. "Our rockfish are starving."

All the bill says is that Maryland, home to the largest portion of the Chesapeake Bay, the part of it where striped bass spawn, doesn't want to be a part of the Omega Protein game.

That's it. In fact, there are plenty of other ways to make Omega 3 oil. A company right here in Columbia grows algae and turns it into oil.

But that mattered not to the members of Environmental Matters, who seemed bent on pandering to the 20 yellow T-shirted union employees of Omega bused to the hearing from Virginia.

One by one, as committee members opened their mouths, the IQ level in the room went into a downward spiral.

Del. Cheryl Glenn of Baltimore indicated that she was moved by letters from the Virginia Senate and the Virginia workers.

"This is the wrong time to make such a drastic approach to this industry," she said.

Del. Doyle Niemann of Prince George's County wanted to know about the "negative impact" on jobs.

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Yet a third committee member acknowledged that he was asking a question Omega lobbyists planted with him.

Pathetic. A D-minus performance from a group of people whose job it is to protect MARYLAND'S environment.

Bruce Franklin, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University and author of "The Most Important Fish in the Sea," the history of the decline of the menhaden, told delegates Maryland had already outlawed commercial fishing for menhaden for food, fertilizer and cosmetics.

Allowing Omega's fleet to continue scooping tons of menhaden out of the bay, "is destroying the Chesapeake Bay and destroying the entire ecology of the East Coast."

Del. Jay Jacobs, a fourth-generation waterman from the Eastern Shore, was unmoved, calling the bill "overreaching." He suggested that if menhaden are so valuble, perhaps the state should build hatcheries and set aside sanctuaries to boost the population.

The needle on the IQ meter quivered and hit rock bottom, never to rise again.

Murphy, who represents Southern Maryland, noted that the tobacco farms of his district gave way to other crops after the dangers of tobacco became known.

"We're not telling Virginia what to do," he said. "We're just saying we won't participate."

Franklin, who has studied menhaden for years, said the decline of the population "is not a gray issue. It is black and white. There's no one on the other side but Omega Protein and the people Omega Protein pays."

Add the House Environmental Matters Committee to that small list.

It's not likely the bill will get out of the committee. Apparently Environmental Matters doesn't think menhaden matter.

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