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Virginia Menhaden Mess

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Have you ever heard of the menhaden? If you're a striped bass fisherman, I'm sure you love this bait fish. The menhaden are small, oily, and inedible. According to H. Bruce Franklin, for a fish that no one eats, the menhaden may just be the "most important fish in the sea."

Menhaden are filter-feeders. They clean our waters by eating phytoplankton and algae. Most importantly, they are a primary food source of tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, swordfish, stripers, sea birds, and dolphins. Since the 1950s, the menhaden have been in decline. Many claim this is upsetting the delicate balance in the Chesapeake Bay.

My family is from Reedville, Virginia - a rural, coastal town located on the peninsula of the Northern Neck. I am particularly interested in the menhaden issue because my ancestors were one of the first to start a successful menhaden business during the 1800s. I also live near the Chesapeake Bay and want to see it healthy and protected.

In Reedville, the aroma from the processing plant is known as the "smell of money." This tiny fish feeds the economic engine of the Northern Neck by employing local watermen and attracting tourists. Today, over a half-billion menhaden are commercially caught. The fish are processed into animal meal, pet food, fertilizer, and omega-3 fish oil supplements. Omega Protein Corporation ("Omega"), a Texas-based company, catches 90% of the nation's menhaden. With their fleet of vessels and spotter planes, the company is very successful. Omega brought in $177 million in global revenues in 2008.

Some argue the menhaden are in decline because of commercial over-fishing. Spanning both sides of the political coin, environmentalists and recreational anglers point to Omega as the monopoly that has reduced the viable population. In addition, both argue that a cap on catch is too lenient. Omega has defended the current tide of criticism by arguing that they do not overfish, they do not exceed a federal cap, and it is in their best interests to maintain a stable population.

The menhaden issue is fishy business in Virginia politics. Menhaden are the only fishery governed by the Virginia legislature. Every other marine species is governed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. This speaks volumes to the influence of lobbying. According to data collected by the Virginia Public Access Project, Omega paid $65,000 to lobbyists, $69,000 to candidates, and included $30,000 to Gov. Bob McDonnell's campaign between May 2008-2009.

Some Virginia lawmakers are trying to change the fact that menhaden are managed by legislators. On January 27, 2010, Virginia state Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, and Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake introduced legislation that would have shifted management of the menhaden to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, pulled the bill before debate because it lacked enough support.

Most recently, on February 9, 2010, a bill from Delegate Albert Pollard, D-Lancaster, passed 77-22 in the House of Delegates. The bill extends an existing cap on the number of menhaden that can be taken from the Virginia part of the Chesapeake Bay until 2014. Delegate Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, opposed the bill. According to, Delegate Miller stated, "Vote against the industrial fishing factories. Vote for the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Vote for the traditional bay watermen, and vote for that oily little fish called menhaden."

Should management of the menhaden be left in the hands of legislators? Or should the species be managed by the more scientifically based Virginia Marine Resources Commission? Is there a better approach altogether?

What do you think?

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