Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Quick, Somebody Check the Temperature of Hell

Virginia lawmakers tackle menhaden management
...Who could have possibly predicted that the Virginia General Assembly would consider six--six--bills concerning protection of menhaden, the Chesapeake Bay filter feeder and favorite food of striped bass?

While the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission chugs along toward some kind of new scientific foundation on which to build safeguards for the fishery, Virginia lawmakers are looking for their own ways to address the commercial fleet run by Omega Protein... 
Some background for the non-Maryland/non-fishermen reading.  Menhaden are one of the most abundant fish in the Chesapeake Bay, and currently the largest commercial catch.  The menhaden, also known locally as "bunker", "mossbunker", "pogie" or "alewy" (a corruption of alewife, which they're not), are a member of the herring family, grow to about a foot long, are considered inedible by people, and are one of the most important food for predatory fish such as striped bass, blue fish, weakfish and speckled sea trout.  Filter feeders, straining phytoplankton and zooplankton out of the water to feed, they are one of the mechanisms for removing excessive algal growth from the bay.  Since they prefer warm water, they migrate into the Bay from the Atlantic in the warm months, and leave for the warmer ocean in winter.
...Senate Bill 765 and House Bill 2280 would take menhaden management out of the inept hands of state lawmakers and give it to the professionals at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which handles all other fisheries issues. The bills are the work of Sen. Ralph Northam a Democrat from Norfolk and Del. John Cosgrove, a Republican from Chesapeake. The bill also repeals the governor's authority to enact menhaden management measures by proclamation.

Equally as important is HB 2369, sponsored by Del. Barry Knight, a Republican representing Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, which would reduce the 109,020 metric ton cap on menhaden harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay by 20 percent each year, starting Jan. 1, until the catch is reduced to zero...

When I arrived in Maryland in 1985, huge schools of menhaden roamed off our shores, often a mile or more across, with the edges of the schools being ravaged by large schools of bluefish and stripers, from underneath by trout, and preyed on from above by diving birds.  However, in recent years the commercial reduction fishery moved its grounds from the Atlantic to the Bay.  Fishing is conducted using spotter planes and large seines; huge schools can be netted at one time and reduced to chicken feed and Omega-3 oil supplements.   In the past several years, large schools of menhaden have rarely made it past the fishing grounds off Reedville; a school the size of a large room is now more common.
...Six bills, six different sponsors, both houses, three political affiliations. Fascinating.

Coastal Conservation Association Virginia is bird-dogging these bills. You can follow along, too, at the Virginia legislative website.

Fishermen and conservationists often claim, without much solid evidence, that lack of menhaden  is responsible for the lack of large stripers in the bay, the various diseases that ravage the native stripers, and responsible for increased algal blooms.  However, as the most important commercial species in the Bay, Virginia legislators have been very reluctant to cut back menhaden fishing beyond that required by the Federal Government through the ASMFC (Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission) which manages the fisheries in it's area as a whole, without regard to the local depletion.

It's a good sign that some Virginia legislators are serious about this.  I'll believe it when the bills pass, however,

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