Southeastern Fishes Council
Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes

Renewed Effort Stirs In Va. To Protect Menhaden
January 3, 2005

Release from:
Scott Harper
The Virginian-Pilot

REEDVILLE, Va. - As a younger man, Wendell Haynie chased the great schools of menhaden along the Atlantic coast - to Delaware, New Jersey, New York and beyond.

He and hundreds of other watermen would return to their native Reedville, a remote village at the edge of Virginia's Northern Neck peninsula, their boats loaded with tons of the small, silvery fish. Their catches would then be sold as bait or squeezed, ground up and transformed into fertilizers, food additives, pet food and fish oil at local processing plants.

Today, all Atlantic states - except for Virginia and, to a lesser degree, North Carolina - have essentially barred the industrialized netting of menhaden. Political pressures from sport fishermen, environmentalists and waterfront residents who disdained the odor and grit of the 100-year-old fishery sparked the dramatic turnabout.

"I think it's just ridiculous," Haynie said, referring to the regulatory wave of the past several decades. Now 73 and retired, Haynie helped found the Reedville Fishermen's Museum.

He said of renewed suggestions that Virginia follow suit and limit catches: "What for? The fish are protected everywhere else. I don't understand the hullabaloo."

Humans do not eat menhaden, but just about everything else in the marine environment does, from dolphins to sea birds to bluefish to striped bass, a favorite game fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

Menhaden also filter algae, which is overrunning the Bay these days and choking the famed estuary of life-sustaining oxygen.

A coalition of sportsmen and environmentalists has surfaced to push for greater protections of menhaden, not only to maintain the oily fish's role as a forage species but also as an ecological antidote. The coalition partners fear that industry, ever concentrating on Virginia, will slowly destroy both of these key functions in the Bay.

Their efforts so far have not had much success.

Because of arguments like those voiced by Haynie, and because of the historic and economic importance of the industry, Reedville and Virginia remain the menhaden capitals of the Atlantic coast.

Last year, the little town that lacks a single stoplight ranked as the third-largest commercial fishing port in the United States, when measured by tonnage of landed fish. More than 373 million pounds of menhaden were brought to local docks - and that was a below-average year.

The industry is the biggest employer in Northumberland County on the Northern Neck, accounting for about 200 jobs. The annual harvest is worth more than $22 million a year to the rural area dominated by retirees, farming, timbering and not much else.

More recently, the corporate manager of the industry, Omega Protein Corp., a Texas company, invested $20 million in opening a new health and science center in Reedville. There, employees will work with menhaden oil, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, for use in a diet supplement for the health-conscious.

For a decade now, attempts have been made each winter by state lawmakers gathered in Richmond - mostly from politicians from Virginia Beach - to more tightly regulate the menhaden industry and its fleet of boats that work the lower Chesapeake.

And each year, they have failed, badly. A bill sponsored in 2004 by state Del. Terrie L. Suit, a Virginia Beach Republican, could not get out of a House committee, losing by a 20-2 vote.

In the upcoming session of the General Assembly, which gets under way in mid-January, political forces who believe in menhaden regulation will try again, this time with a different strategy and focus.

Led by the Coastal Conservation Association of Virginia a sportfishing group, these advocates have hired two Republican lobbyists to argue that their intention is not to close down the fishery or cut jobs but simply to manage the harvest smartly and in line with other species.

The word "environment" will not be mentioned in the Republican-controlled legislature, said J. Christopher Jankowsi, one of the Richmond lobbyists with close ties to Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore.

"It's about common sense government, and it's about jobs," Jankowski said about the menhaden bill planned for this session. He meant jobs inspired by recreational fishermen coming to the Bay in search of striped bass and by pleasure boaters who want to enjoy a healthy, balanced Bay ecosystem.

The bill, which Suit again is expected to sponsor, will be a milder version of the one that failed in '04, said Jankowski. It will attempt to shift the authority for setting menhaden limits from the state legislature to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which sets policies for dozens of other saltwater species.

The argument for the shift is simple: VMRC employs scientists and experts to regulate every other fish in Virginia, so why not menhaden, too?

The subtext, though, is more important, and is based on a view held by many capital observers: that the industry controls the legislature through years of political leverage and campaign contributions. So, the theory goes, any meaningful regulation of menhaden will have to come from outside Richmond.

Since 1996 , Omega Protein has donated $32,000 to state politicians and candidates of both parties, the third-highest among seafood-industry contributors, according to campaign finance reports. But in the overall chase for money in Virginia politics, $32,000 over a seven-year period is relative peanuts, well behind amounts contributed by banks and utilities.

Omega Protein "will fight the bill directly and head on" in the upcoming legislative session, said Toby Gascon, the company's government affairs coordinator and spokesman.

"It's a classic case of them trying to fix something that ain't broke," Gascon said.

Omega is hiring well-connected lobbyists and has several powerful allies in its corner, including the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John H. Chichester, a Republican who owns a home in Reedville.

Gov. Mark R. Warner's secretary of natural resources, W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., is a former state delegate from the Northern Neck with long ties to the menhaden industry. But he also is a champion of environmental issues, with long ties to environmental groups that favor more regulation.

Asked about the bill at a recent reception in Richmond, Murphy said he has no problem with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission managing menhaden, but only if the industry remains unscathed and only if management follows guidelines set by a coastal fishing organization now reviewing the matter.

That organization is called the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, based in Washington. It sets commercial fishing policies from Maine to Florida. The panel recently was asked by environmentalists and sport fishermen to adopt the first catch limits ever on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.

The coastal commission moved, instead, to study the issue. It will meet again in February and might consider imposing limits in late 2005 or early 2006, depending on whether scientists find any ecological problems in the Bay population.

Right now, those scientists say, there is not enough data to support quotas or other restrictions.

Menhaden stocks in the Bay "could be showing some signs of stress," said Chris Bonzek, a fisheries data analyst with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who advises the coastal commission.

"Arguments for taking drastic action, while having some decent logic behind them, still require a leap of faith," Bonzek said.