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Fishing Limits Raise Hard Questions for Maryland Company


A crew member of the menhaden fishing boat Windmill Point heads to shore after the boat docked at Omega Protein's menhaden processing plant on Cockrell's Creek in Reedville, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.
Fishing Limits Raise Hard Questions for Maryland Company
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American George Ball thinks he has one of the best-paying jobs available in the Chesapeake Bay area.

The Chesapeake Bay stretches over 300 kilometers from Maryland to southeastern Virginia before its waters finally reach the Atlantic Ocean.

George Ball catches a fish called the Atlantic menhaden. Ball says that, in the area where he lives, there are not too many good jobs like his. His ancestors also were fisherman, so he does not want to change jobs. “Starting over would be treacherous,” he told The Associated Press.

Ball works for a business called Omega Protein. It processes his menhaden catch to make fish oil pills and feed for farm-raised salmon. But the company is facing increasing restrictions on fishing. Critics say it could be harming the Chesapeake Bay by overfishing.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019 photo, Menhaden are stacked in a hold of the Windmill Point menhaden fishing boat at Omega Protein's menhaden processing plant on Cockrell's Creek in Reedville, Va.
In this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019 photo, Menhaden are stacked in a hold of the Windmill Point menhaden fishing boat at Omega Protein's menhaden processing plant on Cockrell's Creek in Reedville, Va.

Last year, Omega Protein caught 30 percent more fish than legal catch limits in the Chesapeake. As a result, the federal government is threatening to place a temporary ban on menhaden fishing in Virginia’s waters.

The Marine Stewardship Council, a not-for-profit environmental group, is reconsidering the company’s certification for sustainability. Environmental groups, sport fisherman and some state lawmakers are calling for restrictions on the company’s fishing operations.

The harvest limit that Omega Protein did not obey was put in place to protect the Chesapeake Bay area. The bay is America’s largest estuary, a place where fresh water and sea water mix. Many animals, including striped bass and humpback whales, depend on the Atlantic menhaden for food.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission sets rules for fishing. The group set the fishing limits as a precautionary measure while it learns more about the menhaden population.

Omega Protein has promised to obey the catch limits in the future. But it also says there is no scientific evidence that the fish are being overharvested or that the area is being harmed.

Omega Protein is important to the local economy. A 2017 study found that the business added $88 million to the state’s economy. It also said that the company’s closure would cut the local county’s earnings by 14 percent and employment by eight percent.

Years ago, a large number of companies processed fish oil and crushed fish meal. Today, Omega Protein is the last of its kind in the area. Its survival today depends on manufacturing fish meal for farmed fish and fish oil, which is rich with omega-3 fatty acids.

Environmentalists argue that omega-3 fatty acids can be found in simple plants such as algae. They also say farmed fish can be fed other foods.

Omega Protein's Operations Manager, Monty Deihl, looks over control room screens at the menhaden processing plant on Cockrell's Creek in Reedville, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.
Omega Protein's Operations Manager, Monty Deihl, looks over control room screens at the menhaden processing plant on Cockrell's Creek in Reedville, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.

State Senator Bill DeSteph has proposed a bill that would ban menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake. The lawmaker says he wants fishing to be done in ocean waters instead of the bay. DeSteph is a member of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

But Monty Deihl, an official for Omega Protein, says the open sea is often too dangerous. Deihl noted fishing boats work closely together and that difficult sea conditions make the work dangerous. He added that 45 percent of the company’s fishing was done in the bay because of poor weather conditions in the ocean.

George Ball, who is 54 years old, said he does not want to leave the work of his father, grandfather and many of his brothers.

“I’m the only income in my house, and I got custody of my 8-year-old granddaughter,” Ball said. “It makes all the difference in the world for me to be on the water,” he added.

I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.

Ben Finley reported this story for The Associated Press. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

treacherous – adj. very dangerous and difficult to deal with

pill – n. a small medicinal or dietary preparation

certification – n. official approval of something

sustainability – n. the ability of some product or resource to be used over a long period of time without being used up

precautionary – adj. something that is done to prevent possible harm in the future

income – n. earnings

custody – n. the legal right to take care of the child

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