The harvest of menhaden along the Atlantic coast will be cut by 20 percent, following a controversial decision made by the fifteen-state board that regulates near-shore fishing.
Thirteen regulators voted in favor of the harvest reduction in a heated meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), held last week in a Baltimore hotel ballroom crowded with hundreds of activists clad in “Fight for Menhaden” buttons and shirts.
Often called “the most important fish in the sea,” menhaden are filter feeders that play an important role in clean water and form a critical link in the Chesapeake Bay food chain. The ASMFC received thousands of comments from individuals and organizations in support of conserving the likely-overfished species whose abundance is at an all-time low.
Three states, including Virginia, voted against the cut. Virginia is home to the coast’s last remaining menhaden processing plant, which turns menhaden into animal feed, fertilizer and fish oil, and which is responsible for 80 percent of the current coast-wide harvest.
Virginia officials argued for a less severe reduction and warned that a large cut could hurt the state’s economy and lead to job losses at its Reedville plant, which is operated by Omega Protein, Inc. A number of Virginia fishermen employed by the Texas-based company attended the management meeting and stood, arms crossed, in silent protest of the reduction.
The first-ever coast-wide limit on menhaden harvest will go into effect in 2013 and remain in place until the next stock assessment, scheduled for 2014.