The politics of Menhaden

As part of its final report, the General Assembly’s non-standing Marine Fisheries Committee approved several bills for introduction in the short session. (The most prominent among them is a study of the merging the Division of Marine Fisheries with the state’s Wildlife Commission, which would be a very large undertaking.)

Also among the proposed legislation is an effort to regulate the catch of menhaden. The menhaden fishery was once a key part of the coastal economy and an important source of oil and protein. Beaufort Fisheries, the last menhaden processing plant in the state, closed in 2005.

Menhaden fishing was important to the coast’s African-American community, There’s been a major effort over the past several years to better tell the story of the menhaden fishing culture and how it shaped the coast. The oil from the fish is still prized.

The menhaden fishery is considered overfished, which means North Carolina has to come up with a plan to regulate how much can be taken. At the same time, the fish is a popular bait fish, so making it harder to catch menhaden has an impact on the recreational fishing industry and the commercial fishermen that supply them.

But the bait catch is tiny compared to the work of Omega Protein, a Virgina-based company which sells its catch mainly to the pet food industry. A few times a year an Omega Protein ‘mother ship’ comes down and sets up a huge fishing operation, literally sucking up whole schools of menhaden.

From the very informative history section of Omega Protein’s web site:

Omega Protein originated with the Haynie family, some of the first Europeans to settle among the native inhabitants of Virginia’s Northern Neck in the 1840s. Our 130-year history began in 1878, when John A. Haynie and his younger brother, Thomas, established a primitive fish processing operation on family property in Reedville, Virginia, today the site of Omega Protein’s largest plant and refinery.

The Haynie brothers knew the value menhaden oil held for use in lamps, tanning and currying leather, paints and soap manufacturing–some of which are industries we support today. In a 1903 merger, John A. Haynie Company became Haynie, Snow & Company, and then in 1913, Reedville Oil and Guano Company.

Omega Protein has challenged the finding that menhaden are overfished and argued that its practices and the fishery are sustainable. The company is also politically well-connected on both sides of the aisle in Virginia.

Via Gilttaste:

Omega Protein has been a generous and frequent financier of both Democratic and Republican legislators in Virginia. Decades ago, management of marine life in state waters was transferred from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to the Virginia General Assembly, which has management authority over all species except one: menhaden.

Repeated legislative efforts to transfer control of menhaden to the capable hands of fisheries experts have proven futile. Omega Protein has furnished Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell with over $55,745 in campaign contributions. The governor has signaled that he will veto any menhaden bill he encounters.

North Carolina, meanwhile, is poised to shut down Omega Protein’s operations in its waters. The Menhaden bill being introduced today (Monday, May 21) doesn’t name the company specifically, but the description of the type of practices pretty much matches the description of how Omega Protein catches menhaden.

The bill – S807 – happened fast. The state’s Marine Fisheries Commission was voted 5 to 4 to ban the of purse-seine nets for taking menhaden last week. One reason the bill is on a fast track is the growing understanding of the role of menhaden in the coastal ecosystem. But another reason is that it has the backing of the recreational fishing industry. Fueling objections fom both environmentalists and recreational fishermen is a 2009 incident in which a large school of Red Drum was suffocated during an Omega Protein operation. (The Red Drum fishery is dwindling and currently part of huge fight between the recreational and commercial fishing industries.)

The commercial fishing industry is taking a hard look at the bill, including how targeting a Virginia fishing operation might affect cooperation between the two states on fishing issues. In the past few years, an increasing number of North Carolina boats have been working out of Virginia. Omega Protein has emphasized that some of its workforce is from North Carolina.

The bill looks fairly narrow with only one sentence added to existing legislation, but it underlines how our coastal economy is changing and the often complicated politics of fisheries management that results.

Here’s the bill’s main link and text:


AN ACT to make it unlawful to take menhaden or atlantic thread herring with a purse seine net deployed by a mother ship and one or more runner boats in coastal fishing waters.

The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts:

SECTION 1. G.S. 113‑187 reads as rewritten:

“§ 113‑187. Penalties for violations of Subchapter and rules.

(a) Any person who participates in a commercial fishing operation conducted in violation of any provision of this Subchapter and its implementing rules or in an operation in connection with which any vessel is used in violation of any provision of this Subchapter and its implementing rules is guilty of a Class A1 misdemeanor.

(b) Any owner of a vessel who knowingly permits it to be used in violation of any provision of this Subchapter and its implementing rules is guilty of a Class A1 misdemeanor.

(c) Any person in charge of a commercial fishing operation conducted in violation of any provision of this Subchapter and its implementing rules or in charge of any vessel used in violation of any provision of this Subchapter and its implementing rules is guilty of a Class A1 misdemeanor.

(d) Any person in charge of a commercial fishing operation conducted in violation of the following provisions of this Subchapter or the following rules of the Marine Fisheries Commission; and any person in charge of any vessel used in violation of the following provisions of the Subchapter or the following rules, shall be guilty of a Class A1 misdemeanor. The violations of the statute or the rules for which the penalty is mandatory are:

(1) Taking or attempting to take, possess, sell, or offer for sale any oysters, mussels, or clams taken from areas closed by statute, rule, or proclamation because of suspected pollution.

(2) Taking or attempting to take or have in possession aboard a vessel, shrimp taken by the use of a trawl net, in areas not opened to shrimping, pulled by a vessel not showing lights required by G.S. 75A‑6 after sunset and before sunrise.

(3) Using a trawl net in any coastal fishing waters closed by proclamation or rule to trawl nets.

(4) Violating the provisions of a special permit or gear license issued by the Department.

(5) Using or attempting to use any trawl net, long haul seine, swipe net, mechanical methods for oyster or clam harvest or dredge in designated primary nursery areas.

(e) Any person who takes menhaden or Atlantic thread herring by the use of a purse seine net deployed by a mother ship and one or more runner boats in coastal fishing waters is guilty of a Class A1 misdemeanor.”

SECTION 2. S.L. 2007‑320 is repealed.

SECTION 3. This act becomes effective December 1, 2012, and applies to offenses committed on or after that date.

Here’s a bunch of menhaden boat photos and cheesy piano music

Sea change

This month’s Exile on Jones Street column, published Wednesday July 20 in the Independent Weekly, is about the changes in public policy as a result of the recent session of the North Carolina General Assembly.

New laws and fewer rules spell major changes for the N.C. coast

We’re at the height of beach season and it’s full tilt vacationland up and down the strands. This is when most of us experience a little of life on the North Carolina coast.

It’s also harvest time, and the locals are concentrating on gathering those tourist dollars. Early summer has been a challenge. Wildfire season, which normally dies out in early June, lingered well into July, and massive fires inland have choked residents and visitors from Wrightsville Beach to Corolla.

The thick smoke from coastal wildfires rolled through Raleigh about the time the Legislature wrapped up a session that inflicted major changes on the policies and politics that shape the changing coastline. Wildfires are part of the ecology of the coastal plain, and the scorched pocosin will soon recover. The same recovery may not be true for the region if predictions about what was set in motion this session hold true.

The 2010 elections ushered in not just a Republican majority in the Legislature, but also a remade legislative delegation for coastal North Carolina; two key Senate seats and a handful of House seats went Republican for the first time.

The win spelled the end of an era when coastal policy was shaped mainly in the office of former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, who retired for health reasons in January. In his 26 years in the Legislature, the Manteo Democrat was no great foe of coastal development, but he can be credited at least with trying to manage it and for attempting to balance the interests of traditional industries like fishing and tourism and the burgeoning build-out on the shore.

One of his signature issues was the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which dedicates $100 million each year for water quality and preservation throughout the state. The money has helped protect estuaries and shellfish habitats from the impact of coastal development.

What happened to the trust fund is indicative of the shift in priorities and a harbinger of the future for progressive environmental policies. To help cover the budget shortfall, the trust fund was first hit for $50 million annually in Gov. Bev Perdue’s proposed budget, then shaved further to $12.5 million by GOP budget writers in the Legislature–an 88.5 percent cut. The fund’s future is unclear, but the message to environmentalists is not.

Add the other fruits of the session–offshore drilling proposals, cuts to research, the approval of terminal groins (a kind of underwater jetty that reduces wave action)–and a rush to dismantle environmental regulation and enforcement: You can understand why longtime advocates for the coast worry that the Legislature has jeopardized years of progress in managing the formidable forces of both human and nature.

HUMAN FORCES: When the housing bubble burst, the rapidly growing areas along the state’s southeastern coast tallied some of the biggest losses. A News & Observer report in late February by Jay Price found that since 2006, near the height of the bubble, property values in Carteret and Brunswick counties had dropped by $12 billion–more than 25 percent. Waterfront and near-waterfront properties, the article says, plunged even more.

For now, the brakes are on development, but for environmental advocates like N.C. Coastal Federation Executive Director Todd Miller, there’s little doubt the economic forces that have reshaped the coastline for decades will soon resume their work.

Miller, who founded the federation in 1982, says plenty of projects are already in the pipeline. “We’re sitting on a 20-year supply of developments,” he says.

Under what rules these projects will be built and how their impacts will be monitored is now a question mark. “The worry is, are we going to have a facade of environmental protection, something that’s not real,” Miller says.

The passage of regulatory reform and limits on the crafting of new environmental rules, he says, will eliminate agencies’ ability to be agile in designing new regulations and redrafting old rules, many of which were implemented in the 1970s and ’80s.

“We won’t be able to adjust programs to deal with emerging demands,” he says. “That means the rules we have will have to suffice. If they’re found to be inadequate, it will be impossible to change them.”

The continued defunding of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, he says, will also severely impact its ability to handle demands of development, including long-term monitoring of storm water systems and other infrastructure.

“Going into this, what we had was not a panacea,” Miller says, “but the change is pretty severe.” Read more

Four groins for the coast

Star-News is reporting that a deal has been struck to allow construction of four terminal groins on the coast.
Negotiations started with a wide gap between the House and Senate.

A conference committee had met at least two times in recent weeks to try to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation. The Senate voted earlier this session to allow two terminal groins at each inlet in the state. The House later backed a bill that would allow only three projects statewide.

“I understand the concerns,” said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, who had pushed for the greater number. “I guess this was a good compromise in the end.”