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Fishery sets own limit on menhaden
Omega adopts cap on bay catch while facing Greenpeace protests


Aug 13, 2005

REEDVILLE -- Virginia's biggest commercial fishing business said it has voluntarily set its own limits on the amount of menhaden it will catch from the Chesapeake Bay for the next five years.

Omega Protein Co. adopted the cap Thursday just days before a coastal menhaden management board will meet to consider imposing its own restriction on the number of the fish the company can take.

The question of a cap and the impact on the bay of Omega's multimetric-ton harvests rest at the core of a debate over menhaden fishing that has escalated into offshore confrontations between Omega fishermen and protesters.

Greenpeace activists used high-speed outboard boats Tuesday to chase menhaden schools away from Omega's fishing nets, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

In addition, Toby Gascon, Omega's director of government relations, said a helicopter buzzed the Omega vessels and that an airplane was used the same day to interfere with an aircraft that was seeking menhaden schools for Omega. It has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has reportedly received thousands of requests to impose harvest limits on the company since holding public hearings on the matter this summer. Its menhaden management board will meet Wednesday in Alexandria to consider limiting Omega's catch either in the bay or the entire Atlantic Coast.

Omega set its own bay limit Thursday because it is unwilling to accept caps "not based on science" that the commission might propose, Gascon said. At the same time, he added, the company wanted to "show our efforts to be a partner" in fisheries management.

He indicated the company would challenge any cap set by the management board and suggested the commission's related desire to launch a study of menhaden populations in the bay would be better accomplished without a court fight over catch limits.

"We want the research to move forward," Gascon said.

Omega's voluntary cap was disclosed to news organizations yesterday by the group Menhaden Matter, a consortium of conservation organizations that have been urging the commission to constrict the company's catches.

The group planned to analyze the company's voluntary plan over the weekend before commenting, spokesman Todd Keller said.

Omega said it will limit its menhaden harvest inside the bay to 131,000 metric tons per year through 2009.

The company caught 99,300 metric tons of menhaden from the bay last year, out of a total 184,000-metric-ton harvest, Gascon said. It caught 124,300 metric tons from the bay the year before, out of a 166,000-metric-ton catch.

Omega has averaged a take of 110,000 metric tons of menhaden from the bay over the past five years, said Jack Travelstead, chairman of the commission's menhaden management board.

The company converts the inedible fish into meal and oil at a rendering plant in Reedville, which is home to its 10 seagoing fishing ships. Critics argue that restrictions imposed by other coastal states are causing the company to focus its efforts in Virginia's portion of the bay.

They contend that the concentrated bay catches deplete the food supply for striped bass and other sportfish and reduce benefits to water quality that menhaden produce by filtering algae.

Omega and individual bait fishermen in the bay pulled 113,000 metric tons of menhaden from the bay in 2004. They caught 145,200 metric tons in 2003 and 118,700 tons in 2002, according to commission figures.

The company employs about 250, making it the largest single employer in the lower Northern Neck. [/q]

some limit...
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