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Nation

1st catch limit set for menhaden

| Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, 5:24 p.m.

There was a big fight over a little fish on Friday when the board that regulates Atlantic Coast fishing reached a historic vote to reduce the catch of menhaden, widely called the most important fish in the sea.

Fearing that the oily menhaden is being overfished to near collapse by an industry that sells it worldwide for oil, animal feed and sport fishing bait, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to limit the total that can be harvested in a year to 170,800 metric tons, a 20 percent reduction in the average catch during the past three years.

Hundreds of fishermen, members of environmental groups, environmental activists and sport fishing enthusiasts crowded a hotel ballroom in Baltimore to witness the first catch limit set for menhaden.

In a half-century of overfishing, the stock has experienced a decline: from 90 billion fish that were 1 year old or younger 50 years ago to 18 billion that same age in 2010, according to the commission.

The 13-3 vote to rebuild the population was cheered by environmental groups and activists who dubbed menhaden the most important fish because it is a staple diet for large predator fish such as whales and porpoises, and large birds such as eagles and osprey.

But Virginia state marine officials and fishermen said it would devastate a fishing economy valued at $40 million, leading to job cuts at the state's menhaden processing plants in Reedville and down a long supply chain.

Virginia is the only state among 15 represented on the commission that allows a corporate fishing organization, Omega Protein, to harvest menhaden. Eighty percent of menhaden harvested on the Atlantic Coast are caught in Virginia, which will bear the brunt of the cut's impact.

“We will put Virginia out of business,” said James Kellum, a fisherman who sells menhaden to Omega Protein.

“I don't know how we'll survive.”

Even the smallest cut “may be the difference between a man being able to feed his family and a man not being able to feed his family.”

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