RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Senate and House members recommended passage Thursday of companion bills that would reduce Virginia's catch of menhaden by 20 percent over the next two years while scientists assess stocks of the oily fish that is important environmentally and commercially for the Chesapeake Bay.
The action by a House subcommittee and a Senate committee comes about one month after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recommended the 20 percent cut. While considered rare, the federal secretary of commerce can suspend a commercial fishery if a state does not heed fishing regulators.
The compromise bill was backed by often competing interests, meaning it will likely win passage in the General Assembly.
The catch reduction will be felt the hardest in Reedville, a Chesapeake Bay fishing village that is home to Omega Protein Inc.'s menhaden fleet, which works the bay and the coast. As a result of the cut, employment will be reduced from approximately 260 workers at the peak of the May to December season to approximately 225, a spokesman said.
The menhaden catch is among the largest, by pound, of any fishery in the U.S.
Menhaden is a small, pudgy fish that has no value as a food fish but plays a big role in the bay. It's on the diet of rockfish, a prized game fish, and osprey. It also filters the bay, which is amid a multi-decade, federally led restoration after years of neglect.
Omega catches the fish with a fleet of seven trawlers, down from 10 a few years ago, and processes it for use in health supplements, animal feed and other products. The fish is also caught by watermen who use them for bait in catching other fish and crabs. They will also share a burden of the reduction.
Omega spokesman Ben Landry said the company backs the reduction but said the Jan. 1, 2015, end to the limit "sends a message" to East Coast fishing regulators who recommended the catch ceiling.
"Virginia is willing to accept what you've done but you need to get to work and fix the stock assessment in two years," he said after the vote by the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources subcommittee. Earlier Thursday, the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee backed a similar bill.
The compromise legislation was approved with the backing of conservation groups, recreational fishing interests and the seafood industry. Omega had previously sought a reduction of 10 percent, while conservation groups pushed for a catch limit above the 20 percent recommended by fishing regulators.
Delegate Edward T. Scott, chairman of the House subcommittee and sponsor of the legislation, asked during the meeting if anyone wished to speak against the legislation. No one did.
"It is the sign of a painful compromise," said Scott, a Culpeper Republican.
Both sides of the debate, however, have disagreed whether menhaden are truly in decline as a result of overfishing. A 2012 study concluded stocks had declined from historic highs and has been criticized by Omega.
Landry said the assessment "provided unreliable results and created a great deal of uncertainty. We see a population that's expanding its range," he added.
On the 20 percent reduction, he said, "If that's what the ASMFC needs to be comfortable we're fine with that, but let's conduct a robust stock assessment and see what the true health of the population is."
The reduction will be based on the average catch over 10 years.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a leading advocate of lower menhaden catches, praised lawmakers.
"We appreciate that legislators recognize the importance of taking immediate action to protect menhaden and the Virginia fisheries dependent upon them," said Ann Jennings, the foundation's Virginia executive director.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Omega Protein Inc.: http://www.omegaproteininc.com/
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