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Va. Menhaden Management Bill Dies In Committee

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A bill to shift management of a small but important Chesapeake Bay fish from the Virginia General Assembly to a state regulatory agency died in committee on Monday.

The legislation was the final of several proposals to regulate a menhaden fishery that once operated from Maine to Florida but is now reduced to one commercial fleet: Omega Protein Inc. in Reedville. North Carolina still has the remnants of a small menhaden fishery.

The bill proposed by Sen. Ralph S. Northam, D-Norfolk, lost in a debate over the potential loss of jobs versus concerns about the fate of a fish that helps filter the bay and is on the diet of other fish, such as stripers.

Environmentalists and recreational fishermen contend menhaden are overfished.

Omega, a Houston company that also operates a menhaden fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, employs 300 to 350 people at its Reedville plant during the May-to-December season. Omega argues its fleet is not overfishing menhaden.

Northam said it simply makes sense to shift oversight of the fish from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which regulates bay species such as blue crabs and oysters.

“There is nothing in this bill that talks about putting people out of business,” Northam told his fellow committee members.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Natural Conservancy and the Virginia Coastal Conservation Association supported the legislation.

The switch has been opposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, labor groups and watermen. Omega Protein has made campaign contributions to McDonnell and a long list of legislators totaling nearly $100,000 during the 2009-10 reporting period, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Omega’s fishing fleet scoops up hundreds of millions of the silvery fish annually to be processed for animal feed, heart-healthy supplements and a range of other purposes.

Omega Protein’s Chesapeake Bay catch of menhaden is capped at 109,020 metric tons a year.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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