Fisheries panel to rule on menhaden

From Virginia, New Jersey and points in between, busloads of fishermen are coming to Baltimore for a showdown Friday over how much to curb the industrial-scale harvest of a small, oily fish that figures prominently in the seafood industry, though no one eats it directly. It also is an important food source for fish and wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.

After decades of study and debate, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates near-shore fishing, is meeting here to adopt a first-ever plan to limit the catch of menhaden, the most intensely harvested fish on the East Coast and second-biggest catch nationwide.

Recreational anglers, environmentalists and many scientists are pushing for a harvest reduction of 25 percent to 50 percent, pointing to studies showing that the menhaden population is at a historic low and might be affecting the health of other species, including striped bass and ospreys.

But commercial fishermen and their employers are warning that hundreds, possibly thousands, of jobs are at stake in what the commission decides, perhaps also the future price and availability of blue crabs and lobsters.

"It's fair to say that people up and down the coast from Maine to Florida stand to be impacted by this," said Lynn Fegley, deputy fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

A spokesman for Omega Protein Inc., which accounts for 80 percent of the menhaden harvest on the East Coast, warned that major restrictions would lead to layoffs and possibly closure of its processing plant in Reedville on Virginia's Northern Neck. The fish caught by Omega's eight-vessel fleet are ground up there for animal food and for their Omega 3 fatty acids, a popular health food supplement.

Robbie Wilson of Tilghman Island, part of a small group of Maryland watermen who net menhaden for sale as bait, said a significant cutback would hurt his livelihood and make it harder for Chesapeake Bay crabbers, who rely on the fish to bait their pots. Lobstermen in New England have similar concerns.

"It's kind of scary for us," said Wilson, 60.

But the health and fate of many fish and birds in the bay could be affected as well, as menhaden are a staple for species such as striped bass, bluefish and weakfish, ospreys and eagles. Along the coast, they're also food for tuna and whales.

Historically one of the most abundant fish in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, menhaden have been fished for centuries and are the second-most caught fish, by weight, in the country. Reedville, the Omega fleet's home port, is second only to Dutch Harbor in Alaska for the quantity of fish landed there — more than 160,000 metric tons this year, according to preliminary figures, or more than 500 million fish.

Recreational anglers and environmentalists have warned for years that East Coast menhaden are in trouble because of Omega's mechanized operation, which uses airplanes to spot vast schools of the fish and direct its fleet to surround them with nets.

"It's a crisis that's been brewing a long time," said H. Bruce Franklin, author of a book on menhaden, "The Most Important Fish in the Sea." Commercial bait fishermen, in fact, have complained in the past that the so-called "reduction" industry catching menhaden to grind them up was depleting the waters.

But until recently, regulators on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission left oversight to individual states. While Maryland bars Omega's fleet from its waters, Virginia officials have resisted curtailing its operations in the lower bay or along the coast.

Two years ago, the commission's scientific advisers found that the Atlantic menhaden stock had fallen to 8 percent of historic levels. The scientists concluded that overfishing had occurred in 32 of the previous 54 years.

Since then, the scientists have taken another look, and while sticking by their conclusion that overfishing is hurting the menhaden population, they said problems with their mathematical model prevented them from saying with confidence how much the harvest should be cut.

Omega and bait fishermen have insisted that they're not overfishing and contend that the science is flawed.

"We're seeing a lot of fish out there," said Omega spokesman Ben Landry. "The problem is, that's not computing into the assessments."

Given the uncertainty, the interstate commission has committed to conducting another full-scale assessment in two years. But even Jack Travelstead, Virginia's marine resource commissioner, acknowledged that the evidence available justifies a cutback.

"I think we have to take action, but I hope we can be reasonable about that," Travelstead said. He suggested only a 10 percent reduction in harvest for now, a cutback that Omega's spokesman said the company could absorb without having to lay off any of its 300 fishermen and plant employees.

Public pressure is great to slash the harvest more. A majority of logged complaints favor imposing a 50 percent cutback or even an all-out ban. The commission logged more than 128,000 written and emailed comments on what to do about menhaden, nearly all of them form letters or petitions, with the vast majority in favor of imposing a 50 percent cutback in the harvest. Roughly 10 percent wanted to ban any harvest at all.

"If there isn't a radical cut," Franklin warned, "then it's just a question of a little bit more time before they fish themselves out of existence." At one time, he pointed out, there were processing plants up and down the East Coast, but all the others have closed, leaving just Omega's.

Partisans on both sides intend to pack the commission's meeting at the Best Western Plus Hotel and Conference Center in Southeast Baltimore. Two busloads of Omega workers are coming, Landry said, while environmental and recreational fishing groups say they're planning to bring in three busloads.

Omega has rallied labor and civil rights groups to its side. The workforce is represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, based in Landover, and many are African-Americans, who say their pay and benefits are incomparable in that rural community. Local 400 and the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a statement this week warning against "job-killing" cuts to the fishery.

Angler groups and conservationists counter that recreational fishing is a major industry as well: Bait shops, charter fishing outfits and tourism businesses stand to lose income and possibly their livelihoods if striped bass and other sport fish decline because there aren't enough menhaden.

While some commercial fishermen might lose income or jobs from harvest restrictions, they ultimately stand to benefit, said William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and one of three Maryland representatives on the Atlantic states commission. With harvest pressure reduced, the menhaden population stands a better chance of rebounding when weather and other conditions are right. If and when that happens, he added, there will be more fish for everyone.

"This is about restoring jobs," Goldsborough said.