Game Hogs: The Chesapeake's Worst Enemy

Virginia is the only state left in the East that allows the industrial harvest of menhaden, above, which are the top forage for Chesapeake species such as rockfish and bluefish.
Virginia is the only state left in the East that allows the industrial harvest of menhaden, above, which are the top forage for Chesapeake species such as rockfish and bluefish. (By Stephen M. Katz -- Associated Press)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Today's subject is game hogs -- consumptive outdoor types who can never get enough. Whether fishing or hunting, they always want more.

It's bad enough when you run across game hogs in the woods or on the water. But one person can only do so much damage. When game hogs represent public agencies charged with protecting natural resources, they can do serious harm.

Recently, valuable resources in Virginia and Maryland have come under attack by purported wildlife managers behaving like game hogs. In Virginia, the general assembly refuses to honor a coastal regulation designed to protect menhaden; in Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources, for the second time in recent months, has been forced by public pressure to drop a plan to expand exploitation of a beleaguered wild species -- this time yellow perch.

The legislature in Richmond tabled or withdrew four separate bills this session that would implement a cap the on menhaden catch ordered last year by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The inaction sets the scene for a federal-state showdown.

Virginia is the only state left in the East that allows the industrial harvest of menhaden. Its so-called reduction fishery is a multimillion-dollar business. Houston-based Omega Protein employs 200 to 300 people at its Reedville plant, where the little bait fish are cooked down for oil and livestock feed. But menhaden also are the top forage for Chesapeake predatory species such as rockfish, bluefish and sea trout, and many anglers and scientists believe Virginia's plunder is starving those species.

Enter ASMFC, a compact of coastal states charged by the U.S. Commerce Department with overseeing protection of marine species that cross state lines. ASMFC's Menhaden Management Board, under pressure from sportfishing interests, last year voted to cap the Virginia catch at a five-year average of 105,000 metric tons while it studies the issue. For the metrically challenged, that's about 230 million pounds. Enough? Evidently not.

The menhaden lobby is so strong in Virginia, it's the only species still managed by the legislature instead of by the professional Virginia Marine Resources Commission. And the legislature has refused to implement the ASMFC mandate. If Virginia fails to comply by July 1, when ASMFC's rule goes into effect, the federal agency can notify the secretary of commerce, who has the power to shut down the fishery altogether.

Jack Travelstead, the state fisheries chief, says it may not go that far. He says the state attorney general believes the ASMFC vote was flawed in that it required approval by the full panel rather than just the Menhaden Management Board. ASMFC believes it followed its rules. Lawyers are gathering to thrash it out. Meantime, menhaden season opens May 1 and the Reedville factory boats will be out in force, vacuuming up the Chesapeake's primary natural food source with the legislature's blessing.

In Maryland, the yellow perch debacle is at least settled for now after a fractious debate. Following nearly 20 years of strict conservation measures to protect the little spring spawners, the state Department of Natural Resources announced without warning in January that yellow perch stocks were up and proposed reopening two big Eastern Shore rivers, the Choptank and Nanticoke, to commercial netting with no limit on the catch.

The decision prompted an outcry from sportfishermen, who descended in force on two public hearings to complain loudly that if yellow perch are so plentiful, how come several state rivers remain closed to sportfishing and anglers are still having a hard time catching their limit of five per day on many of the streams that are open?

DNR trotted out its designated attack dog, Deputy Secretary Mike Slattery, with statistics showing significant increases in yellow perch populations in both rivers. He's the same fellow who argued in favor of opening more of the Chesapeake to efficient power-dredging for oysters this season, despite the worst catch in history the year before. That effort fell flat and was withdrawn, as, in the end, was the yellow perch plan. Heckuva job, Mikey.

The activist Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland filed a Freedom of Information request that yielded internal DNR memos suggesting no one really knows for sure how many yellow perch are around, and members of CCA and the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association packed hearings in Annapolis and Cambridge to shout down commercial interests. In the end, DNR backed down, and Nanticoke and Choptank River yellow perch remain safe from nets and netters, at least this year.

Yellow perch may be little fish, but they occupy a big place in the hearts of Chesapeake area sport anglers. They are the first fish to spawn each year, and generations of anglers have gone out to little creeks in early spring -- just about now, in fact -- with their kids to catch a few for the first fish fry of the year. Before the late 1980s, when strict protections went into place, yellow perch were overexploited by sportfishermen and commercial netters, while their habitat was being decimated by development. The population spiraled downward, but enough remain to keep an old and treasured tradition alive, if resource managers just practice conservation for a change.

Menhaden are even humbler, not fit for human consumption, but every serious tidewater angler knows their vital place in the food chain, and every resource manager worth his fancy college degree and cooked-up computer statistics ought to appreciate it, too.

It makes you wonder how game hogs got in position to call the shots on important natural resource issues like these. Then you pick up the newspaper and see how high the affliction runs. Our vice president is back in the headlines. Two years ago Dick Cheney established his game hog credentials when he shot 70 pen-raised pheasants one morning at a Pennsylvania game farm. Now he's back in the headlines after getting so wound up while quail hunting last month, he shot an elderly companion in the face while swinging on a bird.

That's game hogs for you, nothing but trouble. Somebody ought to put a choke-chain on 'em.

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