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Posted at 4:17 PM ET, 02/22/2011

In Va., the lowly menhaden loses out to striped bass

By Fredrick Kunkle

The Virginia General Assembly on Tuesday voted to designate the striped bass as the commonwealth's official state saltwater fish -- but not before the lowly menhaden gave sporting battle.

The bill, SB940, sponsored by Sen. John C. Miller (D-Newport News), navigated easily through the Senate and the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources.

But the striped bass hit a snag Tuesday when Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas) offered an amendment to substitute menhaden, a fish harvested in Virginia largely for animal feed and human Omega-3 supplements.

Unlike the striped bass, a game fish that is prized by sports fishermen and foodies alike, the menhaden has never been viewed as much more than aquatic fodder. Several species of fish eat them, including stripers. (Native Americans' name for menhaden was "munnawhatteaug" -- a word meaning fertilizer, biologists say.)

Still, the fish supports an important industry in the commonwealth, with about 300 jobs alone in the Northern Neck, and several lawmakers waxed poetic about the oily fish.

"I maintain that the menhaden is much more important to the commowealth," Del. Miller said, noting that they are also used as bait to catch another important Chesapeake Bay creature, the blue crab. Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr. (D-Northumberland) reminded colleagues that menhaden helped save Jamestown after Indians taught the colonists how to catch and plant them.

"Sounds fishy to me," muttered Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) as the debate eddied around here and there. Del. Bill Janis (R-Goochland) threatened to submit another amendment that would change the state fish to "Sharky, the stuffed shark," a prop that made the rounds during the legislative debate over regulating predatory lending this year.

In the end, the House voted down Del. Miller's amendment and threw in with the striped bass by a vote of 80-16. For once, apparently, Virginia's lawmakers were unconcerned that Maryland had already beaten them to it.

By Fredrick Kunkle  | February 22, 2011; 4:17 PM ET
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