WASHINGTON – Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, introduced a bill last week to prohibit menhaden harvesting in federal and coastal waters, citing the environmental impact lower populations of the fish could have on the Chesapeake Bay.
“Menhaden are filter feeders, helping to rid the bay of algae, which suffocates underwater grasses and causes dead zones in the bay,” Gilchrest said in a statement. “The species is also an important source of food for striped bass and blue fish.”
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be required to report to Congress within five years on menhaden’s role in the bay.
Maryland has outlawed menhaden harvests in its coastal waters, leaving Virginia as one of the only Mid-Atlantic states that allows industrial menhaden fishing – both in state waters and federal waters at least three miles off its coast.
The bulk of menhaden harvesting in the Chesapeake is done by Omega Protein Co., which owns a refining and processing plant in Reedville on Virginia’s Northern Neck.
The company defended its fishing practices, releasing a statement that said it has, “fished these waters responsibly for over a century while preserving a sustainable stock.”
Through the use of spotter planes and ships, Omega targets menhaden schools and then processes the fish for use in fertilizer, house paint and health supplements, according to the company’s Web site.
In an effort to cut down on the potential environmental impact of menhaden harvesting, the fisheries commission capped industrial menhaden fishing at 109,000 metric tons in 2006.
Omega officials protested the cap, which was supported by both former Maryland Gov. Bob Erhlich, a Republican, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat.
“(Companies) have not met the cap in either of the previous two years,” commission spokeswoman Tina Berger said.
The commission is still evaluating the bill and has not formed a formal opinion, Berger said, but it “feels pretty strongly” about the cap program.
“This was the second year that the cap was in place; we haven’t been able to measure its success or failure because management takes time,” said Brad Spear, a commission fisheries coordinator. “The thought is that it has been effective.”
But the commission won’t know for sure if Gilchrest’s bill is passed, Spear said.
“It kind of derails that process that we put in place a few years ago and won’t necessarily allow us to measure the effectiveness of those measures,” Spear said. “We wouldn’t know if we did the right thing or not.”
The fisheries commission will debate the menhaden issue at its annual meeting next week, Spear said.
The role menhaden play in the Chesapeake Bay is not entirely understood, but anything that disrupts the bay has to stop, Gilchrest said in a statement.
“The Chesapeake Bay is a critical economic resource for Maryland, and this bill will be an important tool to improve water quality and protect the long-term health of important species,” he said.
The penalties for menhaden harvesting include a fine of up to $1,000 per day for violators, according to the bill. The bill would not affect independent fishermen who use catch menhaden to sell as bait.