by Lee Tolliver
No single fish swimming Virginia waters has caused the kind of decades-old debate that menhaden have.
These small, oily, not-good-to-eat, seemingly insignificant fish have become more important than the dozens of majestic species anglers put their time and deep pockets into catching. Maybe that’s because, without menhaden, species like striped bass struggle to survive.
The menhaden population along the East Coast is healthy, according to marine scientists. But inside the Chesapeake Bay, where the coast’s only menhaden reduction fishery makes its home, the declining number of this fish is problematic.
Menhaden are forage fish for a wide variety of species, including some mammals and birds. And they are important to the health of the bay because as young fish, they are filter feeders.
On the other hand, menhaden are the main focus of a Reedville-based company called Omega Protein. Omega takes the fish and turns them into vitamin supplements for humans (that’s the reduction) and food for animals like cats and dogs. Omega is Reedville’s top employer.
So what’s all the hubbub?
From the recreational standpoint, the mentality is that “how menhaden go, sport fish go.” Many blame the decline of the bay’s striped bass fishery on dwindling numbers of menhaden. There are several reasons for the decline of striped bass the past few years, but surely a lack of their favorite forage fish doesn’t help.ADVERTISING
Omega officials routinely point to science that says the fishery is sustainable, and up and down the coast, that’s probably true. But the bay seems to be a different story.
Another disturbing part of the old argument between recreational anglers and commercial fishermen is that menhaden are the only fish in Virginia not under the control of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Menhaden are controlled by the General Assembly.
Dozens of angling organizations and environmental groups have long called for authority over the fish to be turned over to the scientists and biologists at the VMRC. But the Assembly tends to listen instead to a handful of lobbyists.
In February, the folks in Richmond once again snubbed their noses at orders by another body, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, to put the bay catch cap of 51,000 metric tons into state law.
That multistate commission can and should find Virginia in noncompliance and end menhaden fishing in the bay. But because Omega hasn’t surpassed the cap for several years, the agency tabled the noncompliance issue, with the right to bring the situation back if the limit is exceeded.
Idle threats to a group of politicians won’t get anything done. It should be known that recreational anglers pour millions of dollars into the state’s economy each year. Omega’s numbers are paltry in comparison.
It’s time things changed. There surely must be a happy medium. But that will happen only when control of the state’s most controversial fish is turned over to the agency tasked with actually managing the state’s fish.
Lee Tolliver, a lifelong angler, has covered fishing for The Virginian-Pilot for 43 years.