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Menhaden catch to be reduced by 20%

by Larry S. Chowning

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted on December 14 to reduce the Atlantic coastal menhaden catch by 20%, to no more than 170,800 metric tons of fish a year.

Although the regulations include states from Maine to Florida, Virginia fishermen harvest 80% of the total Atlantic catch, which includes harvesting fish in Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Many of the fish are caught within the boundaries of Virginia’s portion of Chesapeake Bay. The bay’s quota has been reduced to 87,000 metric tons.

In Virginia, menhaden are the only fish species managed by the Virginia General Assembly. All others are managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). The manner in which the reduction shall be managed will be decided by the General Assembly.

Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Ann Jennings, a key supporter of a quota cap, has urged Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and the Virginia General Assembly to adopt the commission’s management plan during the 2013 legislative session because “failure to do so could result in sanctions that threaten the livelihoods of thousands of hard-working Virginians,” most of whom live in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.

The ASMFC voted only to set the quotas, but gave no direction as to how the quotas needed to be achieved. “This is going to be up to the General Assembly,” said VMRC public relations director John Bull. “We don’t manage the fishery (VMRC). They could limit the season or limit the locations in which they fish.”

Officials for Omega Protein Inc. in Reedville, the largest menhaden firm in the nation, said the 20% reduction is a big blow for the blue-collar workers in the Northern Neck, as well as up and down the East Coast. Officials indicated that at least one fishing boat would be idled.

Besides the crews on Omega’s boats, the firm employs 300 workers in its processing plant at Reedville, where menhaden are ground up and boiled down into high-protein fish meal and oil. The meal is used as a protein supplement in chicken, hog and beef feed. The omega-3 fish oil is a high protein ingredient used for human consumption.

Presently, menhaden are not being over-fished, but historically the fish have been overfished for 32 of the last 54 years, according to data from the Chesapeake Bay Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator (NOAA).

Menhaden are an important fish in the ecological system of the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. The fish are a prime food source for several species, ranging from striped bass to whales.

The fish also are an important bait fish for lobstermen in Maine and to crab potters in Chesapeake Bay. The bait fishery is supported by a group of small snapper-rig menhaden boats that also harvest fish along with the large Omega Protein boats.

The quotas will apply for at least the next two years and until the 2014 menhaden stock assessment is completed. 

posted 12.19.2012

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