Are Virginia Fish Factories Starving Maryland's Bay?

Anyone who fished more than two or three times on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay this season saw two trends, both of them troubling: far fewer schools of menhaden baitfish and a thinner strain of rockfish.

Those who don't see the connection between the two probably believe that either the Redksins or Ravens will make the playoffs.

Why are menhaden growing scarce? You'll probably hear the tired old saw about things being 'cyclical.' Don't believe it. You may hear, too, about environmental problems damaging the fishery. That is partially true.

But the biggest reason for the menhaden scarcity are the tons and tons of them being netted in Virginia by the purse-seining Virginia factory trawlers before they have the chance to head our way. That type of netting is illegal in Maryland.

Menhaden are valuable for fertilizer, oil and bait; last summer, menhaden were so scarce in the Middle Bay that Anne Arundel County crabbers sometimes stood in line to wait for shipments from Virginia.

Last year, 160,000 tons of menhaden were landed in Virginia, according to figures discussed at the seminar Striped Bass in Crisis last Saturday night at Kent Island High School.

What's more, the Department of Natural Resource's 1998 juvenile finfish survey found the lowest number of menhaden in nearly three decades.

Nonetheless, DNR declines to label the threat to rockfish a crisis, choosing instead to call the menhaden scarcity a "problem."

Whatever they call it, we call it time to crack down on Virginia's rapacious menhaden industry. Although Bay menhaden have plummeted by half in the 1990s, the yearly haul of the Reedville, Va.-based commercial operators has remained relatively constant. (Last year, it declined by 3.8 percent.)

It is unfair for the greedy interests of one state to plunder a resource that is so valuable to people next door. But the Menhaden boys long have wielded inordinate political clout, which comes from being an economic force for decades.

It's time for Marylanders to exercise some clout of our own by pressuring the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to slap limits on the Virginia industry. One place to start is Congress, where the newly re-elected members of the Maryland delegation can begin earning those six-figure salaries we pay them.

In Maryland, we worked too hard for too long to rescue rockfish in the Chesapeake to let a threat like this go unanswered.

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VolumeVI Number 47
Nov. 26 - Dec. 2, 1998
New Bay Times

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