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Industry-wide reductions begin as menhaden cap becomes law

Above, an Omega Protein crew pumps menhaden from a purse net into a larger steamer that carries the fish to the Reedville processing plant. In December 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission mandated harvest reduction of 20%. It is estimated the reduction will cost Omega $20 million in lost revenue. (Courtesy of Omega Protein)
Omega Protein’s Reedville processing plant

by Larry Chowning

Menhaden, alewife, mossbunker, fatbacks, bunker or pogy—no matter what it’s called—the fish is making news up and down the East Coast as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) mandated harvest reductions have fishermen scrambling to determine the impact.

On December 14, 2012, the menhaden management board of the ASMFC voted 13-3 to institute a 20% reduction in overall landings for the commercial catch of Atlantic menhaden. Virginia, Florida and New Jersey representatives voted against the reduction. More menhaden are caught by Virginia fishermen than any other state along the east coast and Virginia was allocated 85.3% of the total harvest.

Virginia’s representative on the ASMFC menhaden board, Jack Travelstead, lobbied to hold the reduction to 10%. When this was obviously not going to fly, Travelstead tried 15% and then 17% before the rest of the committee settled on 20%, with the cut being based on the 2009-2011 harvests.

The General Assembly, which manages the Commonwealth’s menhaden fishery, passed related bills and Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed the legislation into law.

Omega Protein’s Reedville plant is one of the largest menhaden facilities in the country and uses the fish to produce high protein fish meal as a supplement for animal feeds and aquaculture, and refines high nutritional omega-3 fatty acids for human consumption. It’s referred to as the “reduction” fishing industry.

Omega is one of the largest employers in the Northern Neck with some 250 people on its payroll at the plant and on the boats. A study completed by the late Dr. James Kirkley of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in 2011 cited the Reedville menhaden plant with having an $88 million regional economic impact.

Also affected by the new menhaden harvest limits are three active bait fishermen in the Northern Neck who work smaller boats, called snapper rigs. These are independents that have their own boats and crews and sell their fish in the blue crab and fish pot fisheries, and to lobstermen and recreational hook-and-line fishermen. However, two of the snapper rigs sold either a portion or all of their catch to Omega, the reduction fishery.

Omega Protein general manager Monty Deihl said, “We do not feel cuts to this level were justified, particularly based on the lack of scientific data. While the new reductions may or may not have positive impacts on the menhaden biomass, it definitely has economic negative impacts on the Northern Neck.”

“The mandated cut equates to a loss of $20 million in revenues for us,” said Deihl. “That could mean at least $20 million on the expenditure side is going to have to be reduced too.”

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 03.06.2013

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