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Week of 7.21.06

A Fish Tale

Industry leaders and environmentalists are waging a big fight over a little fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

In conjunction with Mother Jones magazine, NOW investigates how a small, bony fish that we don't even eat—called menhaden—is setting off a political showdown across state lines.

Menhaden are a vitally important part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. "You could easily claim that menhaden is the most important fish in Chesapeake Bay, if not in this region of the world," says senior scientist Bill Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It is what an ecologist would call a 'keystone species'."

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Menhaden are crucial for two reasons: they are the primary food source for many of the game fish that live in the bay, and menhaden are also what is known as 'filter-feeders'—they help clean the polluted waters of the Chesapeake.

But menhaden are also the bread and butter of one company, Omega Protein Inc. Each year, Omega scoops over 100,000 metric tons of menhaden from the Bay, and turns them into everything from animal feed and fertilizer to health-food supplements, cookies, and lipstick.

Many scientists are concerned that this intense fishing effort is taking too many of these valuable fish out of the Bay. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently voted to put a yearly cap, or limit, on Omega's annual harvest. The company claimed the cap wasn't based on solid science and was totally unnecessary. They strongly believe that menhaden are not being over fished.

But here's where it gets tricky: the Commission's ruling can't go into effect until Virginia (one of the two states that straddle the Chesapeake) ratifies the ruling. Critics contend Omega pressured lawmakers in Virginia to ignore the Commission's findings. Three bills that would have enacted the cap died in the legislature this year, and the governor of Virginia is expected to rule on the issue in the coming weeks.

Whose needs should prevail, and whose should be scaled back? This week on NOW.

NOW Interview: George Mitchell

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