They're bony, oily and not the least bit tasty, but menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay received a measure of protection yesterday, as a regional fisheries commission voted to limit the haul that can be taken each year.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to cap the annual catch at 105,800 metric tons a year, the average annual total over the past five years, advocates said.
"It's a great day for anyone who loves to fish or loves the bay," said Amy Kenney, a policy specialist with Environmental Defense, which pushed for the restrictions as part of a coalition of environmental and angler groups.
The Virginia General Assembly must still codify the cap with legislation, and some environmentalists are worried about how lawmakers will vote.
Menhaden are the largest commercial catch on the East Coast in terms of weight, said Harley Speir, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But the size of the catch has been dwindling over the past decade, he said.
That concerns environmentalists, who cite the fish's ability to filter pollutants. And it alarms sports fishermen, because the bay's larger fish feed on menhaden.
Long used for animal feed and industrial applications, menhaden have become popular for the long-chain Omega-3 oils they yield.
The largest fisher of menhaden on the East Coast is Houston-based Omega Protein Corp., which runs 10 ships out of Reedville on Virginia's Northern Neck.
The limits apply to a method of fishing known as "purse seine reduction," which is legal in Virginia but not in Maryland.
Under that technique, the fish are spotted from the air. Two boats drop a net beneath the fish and then raise the net up with a winch. The net is then cinched shut and its contents sucked up by a vacuum on a larger ship.
Toby Gascon, director of government affairs for Omega Protein, said that the Chesapeake's supply of menhaden is far from being depleted and that the proposed cap is not based on good science.
"The Virginia General Assembly has to decide whether they are going to adopt this recommendation and implement it," Gascon said. "If it ever were put in place, this would not be an outcome this company is willing to accept."
Omega Protein had proposed a limit of 131,000 metric tons, which was rejected yesterday.
Some environmental groups and fishers had pushed for a moratorium, rather than a cap on fishing.
"To put a cap on the menhaden harvest based on a five-year average is like giving a serial killer permission to continue killing people at the same rate as he's been doing for the last five years," said charter boat captain Norm Bartlett of Joppa, Md.