Meetings of fisheries managers often can be snooze fests. But the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting in Linthicum this week turned into turned into a hand-wringing session for commercial fishermen, environmentalists, anglers, and even the commissioners.
And it was all because of a baitfish called menhaden.
Schools of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast mean striped bass if you're an angler, whales and osprey if you're an environmentalist, and the smell of money if you are from Reedville, Va., where the Omega Protein Corporation rendering factory takes an 85 percent cut of the total harvest to make fish oil and other products.
So, the people in Reedville weren’t too happy five years ago, when the commission cut annual harvests of menhaden by 20 percent to prevent overfishing. Now, with populations looking better commissioners voted to bump harvests to 216,000 metric tons.
Reedville may be rejoicing, but environmentalists and anglers are not happy. They argued the increase would hurt osprey and rockfish, which feed on the tiny fish. And to make things worse for the environmentalists and anglers, the commissioners also voted to wait two years for a scientific study before considering fishing impacts on other species.
But then, near the end of the two-day meeting, the environmentalists and anglers struck back. Allison Colden, a fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who was serving as a proxy for Maryland Delegate Dana Stein, moved to lower the cap in the bay from 87,000 to 51,000 metric tons, a direct strike at Omega.
"The Chesapeake Bay is an extremely important nursery habitat," she argued. "And it remains the largest contributor of menhaden to the coast-wide stock and it's because of this contribution, this issue concerns not just the bay states but obviously every state that's sitting around this table."
That would be every state with an Atlantic shoreline, plus Pennsylvania.
Rob O'Reilly, Virginia’s commissioner, fought back.
"I think the main issue is that this is a coast-wide stock and there's no scientific basis to indicate that the Chesapeake Bay has suffered any localized depletion," he said. "I certainly understand those who hold to that concept only because they think of the Chesapeake Bay as different from the coastal area, but it's not."
Unfortunately for him and Reedville, his arguments fell on deaf ears. Colden’s amendment passed with Virginia and New Jersey as the only negative votes.