Don't let this fish get away

While the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay requires attention from all the half-dozen states in the 64,000-square-mile watershed, there is one step that must be taken almost entirely by one state alone. When the Virginia Assembly reconvenes for its annual 45-day legislative session in January, it needs to impose a strict quota on the harvest of menhaden.

Perhaps no species is more important to the bay — and to the major East Coast fisheries in general — than the lowly menhaden, a small, oily fish that is familiar to Maryland anglers primarily as bait. In the Atlantic food chain, menhaden provide basic sustenance to striped bass, bluefish and other commercially important varieties of fish.

Studies suggest menhaden have been overfished and that one company is chiefly responsible for that unhappy circumstance: Reedville, Va.-based Omega Protein Inc. where tens of thousands of tons of menhaden, chiefly from the Atlantic Ocean, are processed into such things as animal feed and omega-3 health supplements.

Earlier this month, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to impose a first-ever quota on menhaden beginning July 1. Under the ruling, Atlantic fishermen would be allowed to harvest no more than 20 percent less than the three-year average catch — or about 170,000 metric tons per year.

Now it's up to the states to enforce the ruling. That shouldn't be a problem in Maryland or most other states with a modest menhaden fishery, but since Omega controls 85 percent of the catch coast-wide, Virginia lawmakers may resist. They have certainly shown a reluctance to embrace menhaden conservation in the past on the grounds that it will cost them jobs.

This time may be different, however. The decline of menhaden means a lot more than losing an estimated 15 of the 300 jobs at Omega Protein. It's already been linked to the outbreak of mycobacteriosis in striped bass. When stripers don't get enough to eat, they are more vulnerable to this bacterial infection that could threaten their recent resurgence.

While striped bass, or rockfish, are relatively abundant today, their future is far from guaranteed. Last year, striped bass had the fourth-best reproduction success on record, but this past year turned out to be one of the worst ever seen. That was largely driven by climate, but it underscores the uncertainty facing species already stressed by pollution and loss of habitat. States simply need to be as conservative as possible in how they manage their stocks.

Should Virginia fail to take action and not comply with the fisheries commission's ruling, Gov. Bob McDonnell will have the authority to impose the restrictions himself. Should he also decline to take that step, the Obama administration would then have the power to declare a moratorium on the species in Virginia waters, if necessary.

None of that should be required. It's in Virginia's interest to preserve menhaden and the fish, like striped bass, that depend on them for sustenance. Conservationists actually wanted the commission to impose a 50 percent reduction, and many expected it to compromise at 25 percent. If anything, the quota is a compromise of a compromise, and Virginia lawmakers ought to recognize that fact.

We don't relish the prospect of layoffs, particularly in a rural community like Virginia's Northern Neck, but it's not in anyone's interest to see menhaden stocks put in jeopardy. At some point, overfishing can imperil the livelihoods of far more people, particularly when the multibillion-dollar tourism and sport fishing industry is factored into the equation.

And make no mistake, that economy is on the line. Menhaden are the most harvested fish on the East Coast, and if Atlantic fishermen have learned anything in the past half-century, it's that the ocean's bounty is not unlimited. Just ask those New England communities that once relied on cod from the Grand Banks.

More needs to be known about menhaden and their impact on the food chain. In two years, the commission may want to reevaluate its approach. But until that time, it's far better to impose modest restrictions now than face far more drastic action later — or worse, risk over-fishing such a critical species to the point of no return.

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