Letter: Menhaden industry responds to allegations
The Gazette-Journal inadvertently misinformed its readers recently by publishing a letter from retired Norfolk dentist, Dr. John Lapetina Sr. ("Stop menhaden fishing in Virginia waters," Oct. 10 Readers Write), which wasn’t based on scientific fact and fell short of historical accuracy. Although Dr. Lapetina is a past Fisheries Management chair of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, his personal recollections and unfounded conclusions run counter to history and fact.
His claims of herring’s alleged eradication and a causal link to the menhaden fishery disregard historical and scientific accuracy. Atlantic herring barely even enter the Bay’s waters. They spawn in the Atlantic (not the Bay), and are far from "wiped out." As for an alleged link between herring populations and menhaden, the menhaden purse seine fishery has almost no bycatch and doesn’t target herring.
But these minor inaccuracies pale in comparison to Dr. Lapetina’s more outlandish claims:
—He incorrectly alleges that in 1990 one billion menhaden were caught in the Bay. In fact, that number accounts for all menhaden harvested that year from Canada all the way to North Carolina.
—The company he accuses of single-handedly catching "a billion" of the Bay’s menhaden, Standard Products, didn’t exist at this time.
—NOAA and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have both consistently concluded that menhaden recruitment is independent of fishing pressure, indicating environmental conditions are the defining factor for menhaden biomass.
—Contrary to his assertion that menhaden populations are "at an all-time low" and "80 percent depleted," records dating to the early 1950s show fluctuating patterns of menhaden population sizes. Dr. Lapetina’s statistic cherry-picks a high point in stock data to claim an 80 percent decline. Current populations are not "at an all-time low" and are at levels comparable to numbers recorded in the 1960s. Furthermore, since menhaden mature at a young age and are a relatively short-lived species, catches from over 20 years ago have no bearing on today’s stock.
—His most peculiar assertion, that the commercial menhaden fishery in Virginia is responsible for a recent die-off of dolphins all along the Atlantic coast, is contrary to cautiously developed findings from federal scientists. NOAA scientists spent weeks monitoring the situation, and attributed these recent deaths to the disease morbillivirus. Their conclusion was actually confirmed in 32 of the 33 dolphins initially tested. Morbillivirus was also deemed responsible for a mass Atlantic dolphin die-off in the late 1980s, when menhaden abundance was high. Weight loss and starvation were never indicated as causes, but rather are well-documented symptoms, of morbillivirus.
The commercial menhaden fishery is one of Virginia’s oldest and hardest working industries, and having endured contentious, job-killing regulations, it remains a vital source of employment and revenue for much of the state’s Northern Neck region. Its importance to the region is acknowledged not only by its employees, local business organizations and elected leaders, but also by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the NAACP. Any discussion of its operations should stand upon a factual foundation. Unfortunately, Dr. Lapetina’s recent letter does not.
Director of Fishing Operations
Omega Protein Inc.