Oct 17 2012

First Public Hearing on Menhaden Regulation in Virginia: Competing Anecdotes and Common Ground

Published by at 3:06 pm under Animal and tagged: , ,

Atlantic Menhaden, via wikimedia

There’s a battle brewing in Virginia over a mostly inedible, oily little fish: the menhaden. The first volleys were fired on Monday at a public hearing in Newport News about proposed interstate fishing regulations for menhaden.

First, a bit of background. Menhaden have been called “the most important fish in the sea,” mostly because of the role they play in the food chain. They eat phytoplankton (which causes algae blooms) and are in turn eaten by a wide range of animals, including striped bass, crabs, and various bird species. There’s also a range of human uses for menhaden; you can find them in everything from fish oil tablets to fertilizer to bait. Accordingly, an industry has arisen whose main goal is to harvest the menhaden, grind them up, and sell to other industries. On the east coast, this industry’s sole member is Omega Protein, based in Reedville, Virginia. Because other states on the east coast have banned or limited purse seining, the primary method Omega uses to capture menhaden, Omega Protein only operates out of Virginia.

Notably, menhaden is also the only fish in Virginia (and the entire east coast) to be regulated directly by the General Assembly and not by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). The General Assembly has exclusive authority to pass regulations for the menhaden fishery in Virginia.  However, menhaden is also regulated by an interstate organization called the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which has the federally-backed power to pass fishery regulations for the entire eastern seaboard. If Virginia does not implement ASMFC regulations in the state, the federal government has the power to shut down the entire menhaden fishery until Virginia comes into compliance.

So, the stakes here are very high for the fish, the fishermen, and the state.

Monday’s public hearing was sponsored by the ASMFC, though run by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. ASMFC was soliciting comments regarding the proposed Amendment 2 to the menhaden fishery management plan. After a rundown of the complex suite of options under consideration, the floor was opened for comments.

Two conflicting themes quickly emerged. On the one side, represented mostly by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and their members, commenters advocated for stricter fishing limits, allocating more of the limit to bait fishermen rather than the commercial fishery, and mandatory reporting for menhaden catches. On the other side, represented mostly by Omega Protein employees and clients, commenters urged the Commission to consider the economic impact of any new regulations and stated several times that the menhaden population wasn’t in trouble at all.

This last assertion was the most vigorously debated. People on both sides of the issue told stories about their personal impressions of menhaden abundance. In one instance a fisherman talked about gutting striped bass and finding them with far fewer menhaden in their stomachs than he had seen in the past. In another, a pilot employed to fly one of Omega’s spotter planes described seeing huge schools of menhaden along the coast.

This serious disconnect on a fundamental fact of the issue is depressingly common on environmental issues. From acid rain to global warming and everything in between, one side will say that everything’s fine while the other says the opposite.

In the case of the menhaden, there is a lot of evidence supporting the environmentalists’ position. Studies focused on the Chesapeake Bay have found that menhaden are at a historic low. The ASMFC’s studies¬†have concluded that overfishing is occurring and the menhaden is headed toward a potential crisis. As far back as 1987, scientists have found a steady decline in overall population, mostly because young menhaden are not being growing up to be adults and replenish the population.

The facts (not anecdotes) indicate that the menhaden is at least heading for trouble, if they’re not in trouble already. But despite this disagreement, there was a surprising moment of agreement between the environmentalists and the businessmen. It came when Omega’s general manager, Monty Diehl, said that cleaning up the Bay would help menhaden populations more than fishing limits. A subsequent commenter pointed out that Omega and CBF agreed that cleaning up the Bay was incredibly important and should be working together to get it done. Mr. Diehl’s response: “I would completely agree with that except I’m too busy fighting the fights every day right here with my neighbors that I can’t even look at the second battle behind me.”

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