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Chesapeake Bay fish fight

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In Virginia, some little fish are at the center of a big, decadeslong fight. They're called menhaden. Conservationists worry that overfishing is harming the ecosystem in the Chesapeake Bay. Industry says there's no evidence of that, and scientists say they need more research to settle the debate. But as Katherine Hafner of station WHRO reports, state lawmakers would need to foot the bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER GURGLING)

KATHERINE HAFNER, BYLINE: On a breezy afternoon, captain Chris Dollar steers his boat across the water in Gloucester, Va.

CHRIS DOLLAR: Quite pleasant right now.

HAFNER: Dollar owns a charter fishing business and has spent his whole life along the Chesapeake Bay, so he's seen a lot of menhaden. He says they're not the most glamorous fish.

DOLLAR: I wouldn't call them ugly, but, you know, I wouldn't call them, you know, poster children for the Chesapeake writ large.

HAFNER: But the menhaden has become a kind of poster child for the Chesapeake Bay. The small silver fish are a crucial part of the base ecosystem. They're a key food source for everything from ospreys to bigger fish, like striped bass, that local sport fishers treasure. Now, Dollar and others worry menhaden are at risk of disappearing. He says he sees drastically fewer fish than he used to.

DOLLAR: The density of the schools where it might be, you know, size of a football field is now just maybe a tennis court, and you see those smaller and smaller numbers.

HAFNER: Sport fishing and conservation groups pin the blame on one company, Omega Protein. It's the last player from an industry that once spanned the East Coast harvesting menhaden from Maine to Florida. Virginia is the last place on the Atlantic that allows this type of fishing, which turns millions of menhaden into fish meal and fish oil. It's been controversial for decades, but in recent years it's become even more heated. Local fishermen sometimes post videos of Omega's boats on social media complaining about the scale of the industry, which uses purse seines, or giant nets, to scoop up massive swarms of menhaden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Absolutely destroying what's left of the Chesapeake Bay.

HAFNER: Critics now want state officials to shut down Omega in the Bay, but Omega says the industry is already tightly regulated. Monty Deihl is CEO of Ocean Harvesters, which runs Omega's fishing fleet.

MONTY DEIHL: First of all, you know, we've been fishing here since 1878. The footprint of menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay is as low now as it's probably been in 60 or 70 years.

HAFNER: He shows me around the company's plant in Reidsville, Va., and points out giant bins holding the previous day's catch.

Oh, wow (laughter). That's a lot of fish.

DEIHL: So that's what a million menhaden looks like.

HAFNER: From these bins, he says, the menhaden move through the plant.

DEIHL: We use 100% of that fish. You know, we cook the fish, we squeeze it, we press it.

HAFNER: The resulting fish meal and fish oil goes into products like pet food and omega-3 supplements. Deihl says banning Omega from the Chesapeake Bay would force the whole plant to close, costing more than 200 local jobs, and he says critics are ignoring the data.

DEIHL: They're not being objective about the fishery. You know, they don't understand the fishery, and they're not listening to the science.

HAFNER: That science is at the center of the debate. The overall population of Atlantic menhaden crashed during the 20th century, but it bounced back after commercial fishing was limited. Rob Latour studies menhaden at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

ROB LATOUR: Quite frankly, if this were any other species, I think we'd all be celebrating.

HAFNER: But the available data looks at the fish's habitat along the entire East Coast. Critics worry that could obscure a decline happening specifically in the Chesapeake Bay. Latour says that could be true, but it needs to be studied.

LATOUR: I don't fault people for thinking about that, but it's a very complicated thing to actually determine with sufficient evidence scientifically. The things you need to know, we don't know.

HAFNER: Advocates want more research to close that data gap. After a year of negotiations, they hoped Virginia lawmakers would approve a new study this session. But instead, the study was tabled until at least next year.

LEE WARE: It's a big disappointment for the bill not to go forward.

HAFNER: Delegate Lee Ware, a Republican from west of Richmond, sponsored the bill.

WARE: This species is so important to so many elements of the Bay.

HAFNER: Conservation groups say Omega lobbied against the bill, though the company denies that. Dollar, the fishing captain, has been involved with conservation for 30 years. He says there's an old saying in fishery politics.

DOLLAR: It's a marathon, not a sprint. I've amended that. When it comes to menhaden, particularly in Virginia, it's an ultramarathon, not just a marathon.

HAFNER: That ultramarathon continues. Advocates are already asking state regulators to halt the fishery until more is known about potential impacts. For NPR News, I'm Katherine Hafner in Norfolk, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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