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Volume 15, Issue 43 ~ October 25 - October 31, 2007


Battling to Protect the Chesapake’s Menhaden

Big problems take big solutions. That’s why we applaud Rep. Wayne Gilchrest’s legislation to slap a five-year moratorium on the factory harvests of menhaden in state and federal waters while the full impact of this rapacious fishery is assessed.

This is one of those issues where the science is obvious, but monied interests have forced more studies while continuing to disrupt the Chesapeake Bay’s food chain.

We’re speaking here of Houston-based Omega Protein, the company that uses a fleet of trawlers and spotter planes in Virginia to wipe out massive schools of menhaden before they can enter Chesapeake Bay. The company turns the menhaden into fish oils for human consumption and quite profitably so, judging by a recent quarterly report of a four-fold increase in revenues.

Meanwhile, we continue to see evidence of a distressed sportfishing industry in Chesapeake Bay, including declining weights of rockfish.

No less a fisherman than President George W. Bush arrived on the Eastern Shore last weekend to declare a new initiative to better protect stripers, the favorite fish of the Eastern seaboard.

Gilchrest told Bay Weekly that he and others worried about the Bay’s food chain have been working for years with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in hopes of finding solutions.

But caps on Omega’s take have achieved little, and the company has proved adept at finding loopholes.

“We felt strongly … that a bill like this would provide exposure and leverage to the issue and was needed to recognize the value of menhaden to the ecosystem and the degradation of the ecosystem because of too few menhaden,” he said.

Cynics might say that Gilchrest came up with his plan now because he has once again drawn primary opposition from a segment of his Republican Party that views him as too moderate. His district includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore as well as parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.

We understand the need to please constituents, particularly at re-election time, though we doubt that is Gilchrest’s main motivation.

We’re also aware of a hugely crowded calendar in Congress due to the usual foot-dragging and gridlock. In short, it’s unlikely that Gilchrest’s bill can pass through the normal progression of committees and public hearings.

That’s why we’re encouraging the Congressman to seek openings to amend his proposal onto spending legislation or another existing bill bound for passage.

It will take an extraordinary effort to combat Omega Protein’s threat to Chesapeake Bay. Now that he’s leapt into this high-stakes fray, we’re hoping that Gilchrest, a former Marine, comes out on top.

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