WASHINGTON – The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took the first steps Wednesday toward setting a cap on the commercial harvest of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.
The vote by the commission’s menhaden board, which was pushed by Maryland officials, recommends capping the yearly menhaden catch at 110,000 metric tons, which is the average of the last five harvests.
“We definitely wanted a cap put on the harvest,” said Richard Novotny, executive directory of the Maryland State Saltwater Sportfisherman’s Association. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s too high a cap, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”
The proposed addendum to the menhaden management is expected to be voted on by the full commission in August. The cap is meant to prevent permanent damage to the species, which is thought to play an important role in the health of the bay.
But Omega Protein Corp., which is the only company engaged in large-scale commercial harvesting of menhaden in the bay, is opposed to any cap.
“Omega is concerned that the ASMFC seems to have abandoned the science-based fisheries management process,” said Toby Gascon, a spokesman for Omega.
The company’s menhaden catching and processing facility is based in Reedville, Va. The Virginia representative was one of the dissenting votes on the commission’s 12-3 vote Wednesday for a menhaden cap.
Menhaden are filter-feeders, eating by taking in large amounts of water and helping maintain and improve water quality in the bay in the process. They are also food for many of the top-level predator fish in the bay, including striped bass and bluefish, which are valuable sport fishing game.
Even though the fish are inedible to humans, more pounds of menhaden are caught than any other species on Atlantic Coast, according to state and federal environmental officials. The fish are a valuable source of fish oil and meal, which is an essential part of many livestock feeds.
Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that the proposed cap was more of a “precautionary step.” He said the harvest needs to be kept at current levels because the method used to catch menhaden, purse-seine fishing, is so efficient that fishermen could dramatically and quickly increase their catch.
Purse-seine fishing utilizes two boats, which surround an entire school of menhaden, which are spotted by a circling plane. Maryland already bans both the use of purse-seine fishing and plane spotting in the commercial harvest of menhaden.
Gascon said Goldsborough’s claim that purse-seine fishing would allow a quick increase in menhaden harvests was “completely false.”
He charged that a cap on menhaden harvesting was merely a first step toward pushing the fishery out of the Chesapeake Bay completely. If that were to happen, Gascon said, the Reedville area would be significantly harmed.
Jack Travelstead, the chairman of the menhaden board, doubted that the commission would ever halt menhaden fishing in they bay. But he agreed with Gascon that Wednesday’s vote was a mistake.
“The cap is not needed,” said Travelstead, who is chief of fisheries management at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “It may very well do more harm than good.”
But David H. Festa, the director of the oceans program at Environmental Defense, said that unrestricted harvest could permanently damage the menhaden population, and make it impossible to manage the species’ survival, along with the ecology of the bay, in the future.
Novotny noted that even though Maryland already has tight restrictions on the harvest of menhaden, the state’s portion of the bay sees few improvements in water quality or prey availability because the Reedville fishery is at the mouth of the Chesapeake.
“They don’t even have a chance to get up into Maryland waters,” Novotny said.
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