Greenpeace tries to thwart Chesapeake Bay fishing fleet

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Menhaden catch

Greenpeace activists scattered schools of menhaden bait fish in the Chesapeake Bay on Tuesday when fishing ships belonging to Omega Protein Corp. were about to drop their sceine nets.

The Omega fleet consisted of two spotter planes and four fishing boats with eight tenders. Greenpeace arrived with four fast moving out-board motor boats, manned by thirteen activists, who attempted to drive away the fish. The Coast Guard was called in and ended the confrontation peacefully.

The Houston-based Omega Protein Corporation is the largest processor and distributor of protein-rich menhaden and fish oil products in the United States. The company accounts for nearly 90% of the entire East Coast menhaden catch.

An Omega spokesman Toby Gascon said of Greenpeace, "They have now demonstrated that their real agenda is to put Omega out of business, even if it means risking the safety of Omega's fishermen." Their fleet is out of Reedville, Virginia, now a top U.S. fishing port due to the recent Omega processing plant opened there.

Chesapeake Bay menhaden are considered an important food source for fish species popular with sports fisherman. They are also, next to oysters, a prime filter feeder in bay waters. The bay oyster population has suffered drastic declines from disease over the last two decades. Studies of menhaden populations are still inconclusive as scientists try to determine the overall number of bay menhaden.

Greenpeace says the species is near historic lows and predators that depend on the fish as a food source, such as striped bass, show signs of suffering from malnutrition and poor body condition.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, had praise for Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, and the state's Department of Natural Resources. They secured a commitment from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to seek a cap on commercial harvesting of Atlantic Menhaden.

A coalition of recreational anglers and environmentalists, called Menhaden Matter, also joined the debate by saying coast-wide population of Atlantic Menhaden has fallen to near record lows. They are also against an encroachment by Omega into Chesapeake waters.

The issue is a cap proposed by ASMFC on the menhaden harvest. The Board recommended a Draft Addendum to limit the menhaden harvest to 110,400 metric tons, which is the average over five years of consecutive declines in harvests for the species. The limit would apply to Atlantic and in-land waters of the species. The proposed cap is for years 2006 and 2007 and open to public debate.

ASMFC recently rejected an offer by Omega that would voluntarily cap their harvest at 135,000 metric tons annually for the next four years. They noted Omega also seeks to reopen some waters in Maryland and New Jersey which are currently closed to industrial purse seine operations. A public hearing is scheduled in Alexandria, Virginia in the next few days.

Omega says that ASMFC's own reports indicate the population levels of Atlantic menhaden are healthy.

A Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist, William J. Goldsborough, said, "I believe that a cap on the purse seine catch of menhaden at current levels, covering the total catch as well as removals from Chesapeake Bay, would be a prudent measure to adopt."

Sources

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