From: Matthew Barakat, Associated Press
Published August 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Commission Votes to Cap Annual Catch of Menhaden Fish in Chesapeake

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Concerned about potential overharvesting, a regional commission has voted to limit the catch of a small but ecologically important fish in the Chesapeake Bay.


Wednesday's vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission would curtail the annual menhaden catch in the bay to 106,000 metric tons for five years beginning in 2006. The Virginia General Assembly must now enact new laws to implement the mandate.


Texas-based Omega Protein is the only significant fisher of menhaden in the Chesapeake, but it's unclear whether the cap would be effective. Company spokesman Toby Gascon said that some years it catches more than the cap amount and others less.


Gascon said after the hearing Wednesday that the commission has "abandoned" the fishing industry. Virginia's representatives on the commission also opposed the cap and raised the possibility that the state could defy the new regulations.


Omega has more than 250 workers at its Reedville plant, making it the largest private employer in rural Northumberland County.


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Menhaden are a small, oily bait fish that serve as a food source for other fish in the bay such has rockfish. They also help filter excess nutrients from the bay. They have been used for decades in animal feed, but recently the long-chain fatty acids found in the fish oil have found popularity as a diet supplement.


Menhaden are considered plentiful in the Atlantic Ocean, but some environmentalists and sport fishermen are concerned that Omega is overfishing menhaden in the Chesapeake.


While the cap is in effect, the commission will conduct studies to determine whether the fish has been depleted in the bay.


Amy Kenney, a spokesman for Environmental Defense, which lobbied for a cap, said the regulations are necessary to ensure that the menhaden population remains vibrant while those studies are conducted.


But commission chairman Jack Travelstead, who also is fisheries manager for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and opposed the new restrictions, said he is unsure what the Virginia Legislature will do.


If the Legislature refuses to act, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce would decide if Virginia is noncompliant or whether the commission exceeded its mandate by imposing the new regulations, said Niels Moore, Virginia's representative on the commission.


If the state is found out of compliance, the federal government could shut down all Virginia fisheries.


Source: Associated Press


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