ANNAPOLIS – An oily and inedible fish has emerged at the center of an interstate dispute, as Marylanders claim one Virginia plant has overharvested a species vital to Chesapeake Bay ecology.
The fish, the Atlantic menhaden, supplies a facility in Reedville, Va., with valuable oils and omega-3 fatty acids, used for food additives, paints and other products. But it also feeds a variety of bay predators, including striped bass.
Now some fishermen, citing a rash of undersized stripers, are blaming Omega Protein’s Reedville plant for a depleted menhaden population, and are asking that it be addressed at an upcoming menhaden workshop in mid-October.
“They can’t just keep taking as much as they want because it is hurting the fishing industry,” said Rich Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen’s Association. Lower menhaden numbers could be reducing regional rockfish weight, he said, making them susceptible to diseases such as mycobacteriosis.
“They’re not going to grow as large,” said Novotny, “and we depend on trying to catch fish 18 inches or more.” Eighteen inches is the state’s minimum length requirement.
A study by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, however, found menhaden are not overfished.
Reedville, at the gateway to Maryland’s portion of the bay, is one of two remaining menhaden plants on the East Coast. According to Jennifer Winkler, of Omega Protein, the 2002 coastal menhaden harvest was 174,000 metric tons, but had dropped from 400,000 metric tons in 1990, due in part to consolidation of the industry. Those figures comprise bait fisheries as well as Omega Protein.
“The Reedville plant is pretty much the recipient of almost all the (processed) Atlantic Coast menhaden,” said Howard King, director of the DNR fisheries service.
Though an effort to impose outside regulation on the plant failed in the Virginia General Assembly in early 2004, Novotny and King said the upcoming workshop Oct. 12-14, sponsored by the fisheries commission, could propose capping the plant’s harvest.
Omega Protein, however, says claims of disappearing menhaden are based on circumstantial evidence.
“We catch much less fish than we have in the last 50 years in the Chesapeake Bay,” said Toby Gascon, director of government affairs for Omega Protein.
“While our opposition claims that the percentage of our catch has gone up in the Chesapeake Bay . . . the actual numbers are quite the opposite,” he said.
A burgeoning rockfish population, he suggested, rather than a depleted food supply, could account for skinnier stripers. Gascon said the state’s successful effort to conserve striped bass has left too many predators competing for food.
Menhaden, which used to compose most of the rockfish diet, now only compose 20 to 30 percent of their forage base, according to Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. But he said limits are needed on the amount of menhaden that can be taken from the bay.
Hinman will attend the upcoming conference, as will Gascon, and a follow-up meeting to help draft solutions.
“Hopefully we’ll come out with some remedy that’s going to help all the fish and all the fisheries in the bay,” said Hinman.
Pollution and loss of habitat could also contribute to falling menhaden numbers, said Bill Windley, president of the sportfishermen’s association, who added that no direct link has yet been established between Reedville and a perceived dearth of menhaden.
Nevertheless, “Common sense would indicate,” he said, “that catching the majority of the menhaden in a very small portion of its range could cause local area depletion.”
A solution, he suggested, would not be to cap Reedville, but to broaden its operation.
But Reedville, which provides 250 jobs, maintains its plant has no intention of overharvesting.
“At the end of the day,” said Gascon, “no one is more concerned about the health and the viability of the resources than we are.”