, 2014

Industry-wide reductions begin
as menhaden cap becomes law

by Larry Chowning

REEDVILLE—Menhaden, alewife, mossbunker, fatbacks, bunker or pogy—no matter what it’s called—the fish is making news up and down the East Coast as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) mandated harvest reductions have fishermen scrambling to determine the impact.

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On December 14, 2012, the menhaden management board of the ASMFC voted 13-3 to institute a 20% reduction in overall landings for the commercial catch of Atlantic menhaden. Virginia, Florida and New Jersey representatives voted against the reduction. More menhaden are caught by Virginia fishermen than any other state along the East Coast and Virginia was allocated 85.3% of the total harvest.

Virginia’s representative on the ASMFC menhaden board, Jack Travelstead, lobbied to hold the reduction to 10%. When this was obviously not going to fly, Travelstead tried 15% and then 17% before the rest of the committee settled on 20%, with the cut being based on the 2009-2011 harvests.

The General Assembly, which manages the Commonwealth’s menhaden fishery, passed related bills and Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed the legislation into law.

Omega Protein’s Reedville plant is one of the largest menhaden facilities in the country and uses the fish to produce high protein fish meal as a supplement for animal feeds and aquaculture, and refines high nutritional omega-3 fatty acids for human consumption. It’s referred to as the “reduction” fishing industry.

Omega is one of the largest employers in the Northern Neck with some 250 people on its payroll at the plant and on the boats. A study completed by the late Dr. James Kirkley of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in 2011 cited the Reedville menhaden plant with having an $88 million regional economic impact.

Also affected by the new menhaden harvest limits are three active bait fishermen in the Northern Neck who work smaller rigs, called snapper rigs. These are independents that have their own boats and crews and sell their fish in the blue crab and fish pot fisheries, and to lobstermen and recreational hook-and-line fishermen. However, two of the snapper rigs sold either a portion or all of their catch to Omega, the reduction fishery.

Omega Protein general manager Monty Deihl said, “We do not feel cuts to this level were justified, particularly based on the lack of scientific data. While the new reductions may or may not have positive impacts on the menhaden biomass, it definitely has economic negative impacts on the Northern Neck.”

Deihl says the plant had been anticipating a reduction, and over the past two years has reduced its labor force through attrition and retirement. “We just haven’t been rehiring and we have already closed out around 30 jobs,” he says.

Over the past few weeks, Deihl said Omega has laid off over 20 more people at the Reedville plant.

“The mandated cut equates to a loss of $20 million in revenues for us,” said Deihl. “That could mean at least $20 million on the expenditure side is going to have to be reduced too.”

Deihl said the reduction is not all tied to salaries and jobs. “Everybody we deal with is going to be affected by this. We won’t need as much outside construction work and we won’t be producing or hauling as much meal so we won’t need as much private trucking. It’s going to impact suppliers for whatever we need. We are simply not going to be buying as much.”

Omega fished eight boats in Reedville last season, when they anticipated a smaller harvest reduction. With the higher 20% reduction, Deihl said they will fish seven boats this year, eliminating an additional boat and crew.

Menhaden cap nets snapper rigs

by Larry Chowning

REEDVILLE—The snapper rig fishery was cut 20% by the ASMFC reduction too. How the 20% of the bait and reduction catches were divvied out was decided by industry representatives, said Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesman John Bull.

Those representatives included Omega officials, owners of snapper rigs and other investors in the boats. Traditionally on the Chesapeake Bay, commercial fishing boats are not always totally owned by captains. For instance, shares of sailing schooners and other commercial vessels of old were often owned by several people.

Within the snapper rig fishery, one of the main issues was identifying the 20% category as either bait or reduction fish. One snapper rig owner, Bert Lewis of Reedville, found himself without a job when it was ruled that only bait fish were to be figured in snapper rig quotas.

“It put me out of business 100%,” said Lewis. “I’m not able to sell any fish on Chesapeake Bay. I’m the one guy who was put out of business.

“They labeled the fish bait and reduction and I haven’t sold any fish for bait since I went into business three years ago,” he said. “If I had known it was going to come down to this, I would have sold fish for bait. I caught 25 million fish last year and now I can’t catch any.”

“Anywhere in the country that I know of gives catch quotas to the boat, but they gave my quota to the company [Omega] that bought my catch,” he said. “I came out on the real short end of the stick.

“There are only three snapper boats on the bay that will be allowed to catch fish for bait right now,” said Lewis. “Wouldn’t you say that’s pretty much a monopoly? It’s a mess and all of it is based on false science. I didn’t go back into the fishing business to relocate in Louisiana.”

Initially, Lewis was told he had to figure his allotment on a 10-year harvest average, which meant his reduction would be as low as 75% because he had only fished three years and at that time his fish were classified as bait fish. “I was told in the beginning I could catch 8 million pounds of fish, a break-even season. Then they told me later I could catch 1.9 million fish, and then they told me I couldn’t catch any.

“If I could have caught 8 million pounds, I could have taken my boat and turned it into a one-purse-boat rig, fired some crew members and maybe I could have survived.

“The way it is now if I want to continue to work in the menhaden business I’ve got myself and 13 other men who have to leave the state of Virginia,” he said. “That’s if I can afford the $40,000 in fuel it will cost for us to get to the Gulf. I do have a contract with Omega when I get to the Gulf to sell my fish to them and I do appreciate that.

“This is the way the law reads: If I had the resources to start a reduction plant, I could fish this season on Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “What that means is, I’m out of business!”

Bull said it seems only “fair” that if fish were going to the reduction fishery, “they would be considered reduction fish” and that was the decision of the industry. “It was unfortunate, but it seems fair,” he said.

The Chesapeake Bay menhaden fishery is regulated by the General Assembly and not VMRC, although VMRC officials worked with the industry during the process, said Bull.

Another snapper rig owner, Jimmy Kellum of Kellum Maritime in Weems, said he sells some fish to the reduction fishery but fortunately, much of his harvest goes to the bait fishery. He will be restricted to about a 35% reduction in his allowable catch.

Last season, Kellum designed and built an innovative 40’ x 18’ purse boat made from two 40’ x 11’ aluminum menhaden purse boats cut in half. Named the “In-seine,” it worked well and he said he was considering another, but most likely not now.

“I can only defend good science,” said Kellum. “Whether it’s to my benefit or to my financial detriment. The 20% quota was not based on good science. It was based on emotion and it’s unfortunate.”

The third snapper rig owner, Frederick Rogers of Reedville Menhaden, catches only bait and received the largest amount of the bait quota for his two boats and crews.

The bottom line is that in 2012 the Northern Neck had three snapper rig businesses working from it’s shores, but in 2013 there will only be two.

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