Little White Lies. Politicians in Virginia support motherhood, apple pie and the Chesapeake Bay. Just ask them. Of course their support for motherhood comes complete with state police in riot gear when actual mothers show up in Richmond. And the frat boys in the General Assembly like apples because they can be turned into booze with uncapped alcohol content. This uncapped hard cider makes the tales of bedroom exploits all the more humorous when told from the floor of the General Assembly. The Bay, however, is sacrosanct. Unless it impinges on campaign contributions from those who would destroy it.
Of Mice and Men … haden. Menhaden are small, oily, inedible fish that once swam in great quantity in the Bay. Essentially useless as a food for humans, menhaden are among the greatest of delicacies for many of the Bay’s famous fish. Striped bass, bluefish and weakfish will stand in long lines for a table at the Menhaden Cafe. At least, they used to dine at the Menhaden Cafe. That was before the Virginia legislature bucked pressure from the other Atlantic seaboard states and let a Texas company do its level best to wipe out the Menhaden stock in the Chesapeake Bay. This cowardly action has led to a deplorable drop in the menhaden stock.
A silver fish with green highlights. The only saltwater fish in Virginia regulated directly by the General Assembly is the menhaden. This is because the menhaden is the only fish that can turn directly into campaign contributions from its greatest enemy – the Omega Protein Company. Based in Houston, Texas, but operating out of Reedville, Virginia, the Omega Protein Company uses its ten factory ships, planes and helicopters to pillage the Chesapeake Bay of its menhaden. Omega is such a pariah in the marine management world that every Atlantic state, except Virginia, has banned its factory ships from their coastal waters (although North Carolina allows limited access). Virginia’s love affair with Omega Protein is buoyed by waves of cash. $55,000 to Gov Bob McDonnell, $106,000 to state legislators, $53,000 to Virginia’s federal politicians and another cool $3M in lobbying. All of which has given the Clown Show in Richmond sufficient “courage” to persecute the little fish to the edge of extinction.
The universal fate of bullies. Unfortunately for Virginia’s politicians, not all states have legislatures laden with greasy fingered, greedy eco-cowards. Last November, representatives from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) helped the little fish pivot on its left dorsal fin and throw an overhand right straight into the faces of Virginia’s political class. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Virginia’s political class was left with two black eyes, a broken nose and a mouth full of blood and tooth fragments. Metaphorically speaking, of course. The ASMFC voted 14-3 to implement a strict menhaden fishing limit across all of the Atlantic states – including Virginia. The net effect of the cap will be a 37% reduction in the commercial landings of menhaden. Or, put another way, the Chesapeake Bay will finally start to recover its menhaden stock.
Numbers? We don’t need no stinkin’ numbers. Much of the opposition to menhaden fishing limits has come from Virginia politicians concerned about the impact a limit will have on the 300 largely seasonal jobs provided by the Omega Protein Company to the people of Reedville, Va. It is a legitimate concern. However, math has never been our political class’ long suit. There can be no doubt that overfishing of menhaden is hurting the sportfishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay. Striped bass are now routinely found to be malnourished in the Chesapeake Bay. Anecdotally, the charter fishing business seems to have fallen on hard times. It seems that annihilating the source of food for sport fish hurts the sport-fishing industry. Go figure.
Omega is the only large scale commercial menhaden fishing operation on the East Coast so calculating the benefits of that industry is fairly easy. They have sales of $60M per year. They employ 300 Virginians at peak and generate demand for another 219 affiliated jobs outside the Omega Protein Company. Meanwhile, the recreational fishing industry in Virginia and Maryland generates $332M of economic activity and provided 3,500 jobs in 2008. It seems to me that a 37% reduction in commercial menhaden landings is justified by the recovery of a 3,500 job industry. Of course, the recreational fishing industry is largely composed of small businesses which cannot match a single corporation’s ability to shove wads of cash into the pockets of our political class.
The Good, the Bad and the Clown Show. Four separate bills were introduced into the General Assembly’s 2012 session regarding menhaden management. The bad bill was SB18 patroned by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland. Stuart’s bill was a half-assed attempt to have Virginia resign from ASMFC once that organization voted to limit menhaden fishing. The bill was reported out of committee on a 9 – 6 vote. However, it was carried over until 2013 by the Finance Committee on a 14-0 vote. The menhaden have a reprieve of at least another year and Sen Stuart gets to tell his constituents that he tried. Actually, Stuart is a good enough guy. He has pressed legislation to reduce phosphate pollution and is sensitive to conservation efforts. The good bill was SB466 patroned by Sen Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk. Sen Northam’s bill was the mirror opposite of Sen. Stuart’s bill. It specifically authorized Virginia’s regulator to adopt the ASMFC’s fisheries plan for menhaden. It was also continued to 2013 with a 15 – 0 vote in committee. The General Assembly’s inability to get much of anything done was a blessing. They’ll get to solicit more money from Omega to join battle next year and I’ll get to put more delicious striped bass, bluefish and weakfish on my table.
– DJ Rippert (friend of the