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April 13, 2006

If Only Menhaden Wrote Campaign Checks

Campaign contributions can have a corrosive power in politics. Money often "encourages" (if it did more, it'd be a bribe) politicians to do things that otherwise would be impossible to justify...

Campaign contributions can have a corrosive power in politics. Money often "encourages" (if it did more, it'd be a bribe) politicians to do things that otherwise would be impossible to justify.

Take the little silvery fish with the big problem, better known as menhaden.

Humans don't eat menhaden, but other fish do. They live in such vast schools that when they're left alone, they help clean the Chesapeake Bay.

The species' big problem is that it's also a good raw material for industrial fish oil and meal. The company that gathers menhaden like fishy ore is called Omega Protein, and it runs a processing facility in Reedville.

Omega's factory-fishing operations are removing enough menhaden from Virginia waters that it has forced fishermen and environmentalists to band together in hopes of limiting its catch, to protect the sports fish population and the Bay itself.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has recommended limiting Omega's harvest in the Chesapeake at 105,783 metric tons each year. Omega contends that the cap isn't based on good science and that regulators should wait until studies confirm its necessity, essentially the same stalling tactic used to delay oyster and crab curbs until those populations crashed.

The menhaden cap needs to be implemented by the General Assembly. After counting $23,500 worth of donations from Omega last year, Richmond declined.


In the House of Delegates subcommittee where the implementing bills died, the Virginia Public Access Project shows contributions for chairwoman Kathy Byron ($500), for Robert Orrock ($500), Ben Cline ($500), Stephen Shannon ($500) and Robert Wittman ($1,000).

The committee's decision was supported by an opinion from Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who said that the fisheries commission's recommendation wasn't binding on Virginia. McDonnell's campaign received $1,000 from Omega.


Gov. Tim Kaine (he got $2,000 from Omega, which gave his November opponent, Jerry Kilgore, $6,500 over a couple of years) now has his hands firmly tied. For technical reasons, his office says, Kaine can't implement the cap himself. So Omega is essentially free to take as many menhaden as it can catch this season.

The problem is that in the absence of state action , the federal government might ban all menhaden fishing in the Bay. The company, obviously, has made a bet that the feds won't do that.

This issue points out the ridiculous lengths that Richmond will go to protect a single campaign contributor. Menhaden is the only saltwater fish species - the only one - regulated by the Assembly instead of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The VMRC is probably more likely to rationally consider all arguments for stewardship of the menhaden fisheries, rather than the single argument that apparently controlled the General Assembly's deliberations: Fish don't write checks.

(c) 2006 HamptonRoads.com/PilotOnline.com