Feds threaten to close fish­ery

Of­fi­cials say com­pany must com­ply with men­haden quo­tas

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Lee Tol­liver

The na­tion’s com­merce sec­re­tary said he will shut down the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay’s men­haden fish­ery if the com­pany that ac­counts for the vast ma­jor­ity of the catch doesn’t com­ply with fed­eral quo­tas by June 17.

Fed­eral fisheries man­agers re­cently ruled Vir­ginia “out of com­pli­ance” for al­low­ing the com­pany, Omega Pro­tein Corp., to sur­pass the bay quota.

Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross is­sued a state­ment Thurs­day that the Cana­dian-owned com­pany “will­fully vi­o­lated the fish­ing cap on men­haden in­side the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, con­tin­u­ing to fish af­ter the fed­er­ally-or­dered quota of 51,000 tons had been met.”

Con­ser­va­tion­ists cheered the en­force­ment news.

“There have been con­ser­va­tion­ists, con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions and an­glers work­ing on this for more than 20 years in an ef­fort to pro­tect the fish­ery,” said Chris Moore, se­nior re­gional ecosys­tem sci­en­tist for the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion. “This is the largest con­ser­va­tion vic­tory in that ef­fort.”

Men­haden are a small, oily fish that Omega uses to make pet food, hu­man sup­ple­ments and to feed farm-raised salmon. The fish are fil­ter feed­ers that help clean the bay and are an im­por­tant species at the bot­tom of the food chain, pro­vid­ing for­age for striped bass and other large fish.

Though there is no in­dus­tri­alscale men­haden fish­ery in Mary­land, the fish caught in Vir­ginia are still a food source for striped bass and other mi­gra­tory fish that spend much of the year in Mary­land wa­ters.

The pend­ing shut­down fol­lows a let­ter to Ross by the gov­er­nors of nine states from Vir­ginia to Maine — in­clud­ing Mary­land Repub­li­can Gov. Larry Ho­gan — urg­ing the sec­re­tary to find the com­mon­wealth out of com­pli­ance and to threaten to shut down the fish­ery.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion of Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Demo­crat, is urg­ing that state’s leg­is­la­ture to step in. Men­haden are the only salt­wa­ter fish in Vir­ginia wa­ters gov­erned by the state’s Gen­eral Assem­bly in­stead of the Vir­ginia Marine Re­sources Com­mis­sion.

“We thank Sec­re­tary Ross … for tak­ing this op­por­tu­nity to pro­tect the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and the liveli­hoods of all those who de­pend on it, in­clud­ing the work­ers at Omega Pro­tein,” said Vir­ginia Nat­u­ral Re­sources Sec­re­tary Matthew J. Strick­ler. “We be­lieve strongly that a science-based ap­proach that ac­counts for all fisheries in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay ecosys­tem is ap­pro­pri­ate, and we look for­ward to work­ing with the Gen­eral Assem­bly to ap­ply such an ap­proach to the men­haden fish­ery.”

Omega this year caught more than 35 mil­lion pounds over the bay quota, cit­ing sev­eral rea­sons for its con­tin­ued har­vest, in­clud­ing that state leg­is­la­tors never adopted the fed­eral quota.

The com­pany even pub­licly de­clared that it would fish be­yond the fed­er­ally-man­dated limit. Omega long has com­plained that quo­tas aren’t based on science.

“Omega Pro­tein is dis­ap­pointed in today’s de­ci­sion by the Sec­re­tary of Com­merce to im­pose a mora­to­rium on Vir­ginia’s men­haden fish­ery,” the com­pany said in a state­ment. “This is the first time that a mora­to­rium has been placed on a fish­ery that is not over­fished and is healthy by ev­ery mea­sure.”

Omega did not say whether it now will be­gin com­ply­ing with the quota.

Recre­ational an­glers cheered the com­merce de­part­ment’s de­ci­sion.

“It’s nice to fi­nally get some recog­ni­tion for the is­sue and to see some­thing get done to pun­ish the com­pany,” said Steve Ep­stein, a fish­er­man and con­ser­va­tion ac­tivist. “We hope the bay cap can be hon­ored in the fu­ture,” he said. “This is go­ing to en­tirely change the way the com­pany does busi­ness.”

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