Menhaden regulation compromise cuts deep

Posted on Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 9:53 am

Omega Protein fishermen stood as the crucial vote was taken at the ASMFC surrounded by anti-Omega demonstrators waving "Conserve Menhaden" signs.

The Sun was just coming up when two buses carrying Omega Protein employees from Reedville crossed into Maryland last week.

And as darkness gave way to morning, nervous riders,on their way to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting, worried that many of the them would not have jobs when the day was over.

On Dec. 14, the commission decided whether the annual catch of menhaden would be reduced.

If the cuts were deep enough, Omega could go out of business and more than 200 Northern Neck workers would be jobless.

When the buses left Baltimore it was dark again. The men still had jobs, but it had been a close run.

Starting two years ago, the ASMFC had begun looking into whether the menhaden stocks had fallen to dangerously low levels. Nothing indicated they had under the then existing method of computing, but a newer method indicated that the fish might be in trouble.

During the meeting, at which the members of the commission were seated in such fashion that it was almost impossible to tell who was speaking, someone asked the Menhaden Board’s technical committee about the new method of calculating when fishing pressure was too heavy. “In other words, we’re going to move the goal posts?” a committee member asked. The technical committee confirmed that was the case.

The committee advised the commission   that   the   computer model it had used in the past to estimate the size of the menhaden stocks had failed when it was used in attempting a stock assessment in 2011. In fact, John Bull of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission said the 2011 assessment showed that the menhaden had been extinct for 30 years and they clearly are not. That left the technical committee with no firm scientific basis upon which to recommend action to reduce the menhaden catch but it concluded on what it called an “ad hoc” basis that there was enough concern that the ASMFC should consider putting a limit of the annual catch of menhaden.

Between 2009 and 2011 170,800 metric tons (2.1 tons) of menhaden were landed by Omega and operations that catch menhaden for use as bait. Of that tonnage, Omega, which processes the fish into fishmeal and oil, landed 80 per cent. The commission debated changing the percentages.

The initial motion would have reduced the annual catch by 25 per cent, a reduction that would require Omega to idle two of its eight steamers and could have pushed the operation into unprofitability.

Virginia commission member Jack Travelstead noted that the ad hoc recommendations were “sort of an educated guess” rather than science and asked that action be delayed until the science could be gathered.

The commission refused the delay and offered Travelstead a substitute motion to reduce the cut from 25 per cent to 10 per cent, which Omega had said was acceptable.

The measure failed.

A “compromise” that would result in a 20 per cent reduction was offered and Travelstead and the other Virginian at the table, Jimmy Kellum, tried but failed to get 15 percent.

During the commission’s discussion, it was pointed out that the group had drawn more than 100,000 comments supporting deep cuts in the catch.

Kellum drew boos from the several hundred people supporting limiting Omega’s catch when he thundered, “This is no referendum. This is fisheries management. The 100,000 letters mean nothing. It’s just emotion.”

With the motion to reduce the catch by 20 percent about to come to a vote, anti-Omega people started parading around the hall waving “Conserve Menhaden” signs. The Omega fishermen, in their yellow union shirts rose and marched, too.

They formed a united line and stared as the 40 white commission members cast votes that could cost more than 200 black Omega employees their jobs.

The commission adopted the 20 percent cut.

Omega officials said that the reduction wouldn’t put the operation out of business but it would have to make adjustments.

But, another critical vote was coming up; how the catch would be allotted between Omega and the bait fishermen.

In the past, Omega has always had right at 80 per cent of the catch. Now, there was a motion to reduce it to 70 per cent and that, coupled with the limit would have put Omega under.

“It would put the nail in the coffin,” Travelstead said.

Another commission member said that the proposal “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

It was defeated, leaving Omega with its 80 percent share of the catch.

The catch restrictions will be revisited when an accurate assessment is completed in 2014.

When Omega’s people had reboarded their buses, Omega CEO Bret Scholtes, who had come from Houston, got on the buses and told the employees not to be disheartened.

“Monty (Deihl) and I going to sit Monday and see where we are,” Scholtes said.

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