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James Drake

Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission began a process for possibly setting a practical catch limit for menhaden.

Friday, the commission will meet in Baltimore to determine the future of this fishery.

Menhaden are small, oily, bony fish that are of no culinary interest to humans. They are however of keen importance to striped bass, sea trout, bluefish, osprey, great blue herons and a host of other wild creatures who depend upon them for food.

Often referred to as “the most important fish in the sea,” menhaden are a primary food source for many predators and a healthy menhaden population is indeed of acute interest to us. Without them, the fish we do care about will have little to eat and those game fish populations will then suffer.

Menhaden are a very significant part of the natural food chain and they are filter feeders. Menhaden help improve water quality simply by swimming around.

The ASMFC, the group that’s going to decide their fate, was formed in 1942 in recognition of the fact that fish do not adhere to political boundaries.

Representatives from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida make up ASMFC. In addition, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission also has a vote in ASMFC matters.

It should really warm our hearts to know that all the states along the eastern seaboard of the United States collaborate and are working together to protect our wild fisheries.

Well, that's what they're supposed to do.

Remember, the ASMFC was founded on the premise that fish do not stop at state boundaries. Unfortunately, the corrupt and devious side of the political game may instead be seen in the days ahead. I sure hope I’m dead wrong about that, but there is real fear that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

I just wish I had more faith in people doing the right thing for the menhaden fishery.

The ASMFC decided to take action on menhaden in good part because of the 90,000 public comments submitted to fishery managers in November 2011. That’s an awful lot of interest in a fish nobody eats.

“The public outcry has been phenomenal,” said Paul Eidman, New Jersey fishing guide and founder of the group Menhaden Defenders. “People understand that you can’t deplete a keystone species like menhaden without major ecological and economic consequences. It’s time to stand up to the special interests that exploit this resource for record profits. It’s time to put a responsible catch limit on this fishery.”

I’d think most reasonable folks would agree with Eidman. However, Omega Protein, a lucrative and politically connected company, would very likely take intense exception to his words.

Omega Protein has a major menhaden harvest business in the Northern Neck of Virginia that turns these oily fish into profitable products, including such things as diet supplements, fishmeal, oils for livestock and resins for paint.

As part of their daily operation, they use multiple aircraft to locate menhaden schools throughout the Chesapeake Bay and then send huge trawlers using the most efficient purse seine nets to gather them all up.

Hundreds of people are employed by Omega Protein in Virginia and hundreds of thousands of pounds of menhaden are taken by them from our waters every year.

In Maryland, our wild fish stocks are managed by the Department of Natural Resources. They have the experts and expertise to do what is right to achieve a balance between fishermen and fish species.

In Virginia, fish stocks are managed in much the same way by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

These two agencies manage and watch over all of Virginia’s fish stocks except one. The menhaden are controlled separately by Virginia’s elected legislature.

These politicians might not know the difference between a menhaden and a mackerel, but they’re in total charge of this fishery in Virginia. Do you see a potential problem here?

The PRFC regulates fishing on the main stem Potomac River. A.C. Carpenter is the PRFC secretary and the person who normally votes on ASMFC matters.

In a recent article for The Public Trust Project, writer Alison Fairbrother revealed that Carpenter keeps no records of his votes on ASMFC matters nor does he keep track of his own recent votes and can’t provide a history of how he voted on menhaden issues.

Am I the only one who finds that pretty strange?

If I can find out, I’ll let you know how Carpenter casts his vote this coming Friday.

The ASMFC meeting is scheduled to be held at the Best Western Plus Hotel and Conference Center in Baltimore from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

The Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland will provide buses to take people to the Baltimore meeting. They will be leaving the Riva Road Park-N-Ride lot (Harry S. Truman Prkwy and Riva Road) at 7:15 a.m. An early bus will leave the meeting around the lunch hour for those who need to return early and another bus will leave at 3 p.m.

They will provide breakfast, lunch, refreshments and a “Save the Menhaden” long sleeve T-shirt to all the riders.

For more information, email and give him your name and put “menhaden” in the subject line.

It would be great if you could attend. It will be really great if we do the right thing and protect the menhaden fishery.

With the obvious exception of Omega Protein, most everyone else concerned with this issue thinks menhaden are currently being overfished and the population numbers are currently at historic lows.

Some estimates put the wild menhaden now at but 10 percent of their typical population levels.

If the ASMFC rules that the menhaden harvest must be reduced, and it should be by both Omega and other fishermen throughout the region who capture menhaden to be used as bait, will the Virginia politicians go along with that recommendation?

That's the big question and I'll keep you posted on what happens.

Be a BASS marshal

The Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society will be accepting applications beginning at 9 a.m. on Dec. 18 for marshals to attend the upcoming BassMaster Classic on Feb. 22 to 24 launching in Tulsa, Okla.

It will cost $350 for the privilege. Marshals are the folks who ride around with top ranking professional fishermen during the Classic as official observers and report their angler’s catch electronically back to BASS headquarters.

For that $350, you’ll get a unique marshal uniform and a ride in a state-of-the-art bassboat for a minimum of two days.

More importantly, you’ll have a front row seat to observe the very best bass fishermen in the world. That last part could be a truly priceless opportunity.

BASS members can register at