Regulators must save menhaden to help striped bass

The coming days will be the tale of two fish and the regulatory process by which the pair is protected and managed.

The future of one fish, the striped bass, is directly tied to the future of the other, menhaden. But you wouldn't know it by the way the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is acting.


Some commissioners are hair-on-fire ready to vote on Monday to begin the process of adding new protections for striped bass that could change size and creel limits or shorten the fishing season. Forget the fact that the science to back such a decision—a new stock assessment--is still more than a month away from completion.

But the menhaden debate may linger on, as it has for years, or result in approval of some half-hearted measure.


Yes, there are some disturbing signs that the striped bass, Maryland's state fish, is facing tough times. The Chesapeake Bay, the spawning grounds and nursery for three-quarters of the entire Atlantic Seaboard population, is a filthy mess with an ever-increasing dead zone. Many adult striped bass have sores and are ravaged by a fatal disease that remains a mystery to scientists. The census of baby stripers in the bay has been below average for the last three years.

And the menhaden stock—a primary food source for striped bass—is at 14 percent of what it was 30 years ago.

But what will ASMFC do to protect menhaden on Tuesday, when the species comes up for discussion?

Maybe looking at harvest numbers they've had in hand for months, numbers that show the commercial harvest has exceeded its target in 32 of the last 54 years, commissioners will finally vote to fire up the regulation-making machine to give the fish a chance to repopulate the waters.

But maybe not.

In the first place, there's Omega Protein, "the 300-pound gorilla in the room," as Wellfleet, Mass., officials call it. The company, which has a fleet of 10 vessels and eight spotter planes working in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake, has done a superb job of protecting its interests, greasing the palms of elected Virginia officials, packing legislative hearings in Annapolis and mounting a public relations campaign that included a video endorsement by the executive director of ASMFC, Vince O'Shea.

Omega grinds up menhaden at its Reedville, Va., plant for use in heart-healthy Omega-3 products, pet food and cosmetics. Its operation employs about 300 people, which makes it a big player both locally and in Richmond, the state capital.

In a four-page letter to ASMFC, Omega and 41 other commercial interests urge the commissioners to "resist any calls to rush forward precipitously, ahead of schedule, with the development of any new management scheme."

Rush ahead? Really?

In 1967, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission urged the governor and General Assembly to authorize a study "of the effect on the menhaden fishery operations on recreational fishing in Virginia" in time for the 1970 legislative session. Nothing really came of it, but the first red flag was raised—by Virginia.

Four decades hardly seems to be rushing to conclusions.

In an interview last month with The Public Trust Project, Dr. Rob Latour, a Virginia fisheries expert who led ASMFC's 2010 menhaden stock assessment said: "There are lots of flags within the stock assessment that cause concern…the total abundance predicted by the stock assessment is the lowest on record from 1954-2008. How can it be the lowest ever and still be healthy or not overfished?"


How, indeed.

But Omega has a new posse of allies: commercial fishermen from Maine to North Carolina who supply the lobster fleet with bait.

With overfished herring being placed off-limits while the stock is rebuilt, bait boats are likely to substitute menhaden.

If ASMFC didn't have the intestinal fortitude to take on Omega by itself, why should anyone think it can summon up the courage to take on commercial interests from nine states?

But if the commissioners are ready to forge ahead without the latest science to protect striped bass, how can they in good conscience and with plenty of alarming numbers in hand deny menhaden protection that really means something?

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