Opinion

Can business and environmentalism coexist?

Ronnie Shows Former Democratic Congressman

Increasingly in this country there is the perception that what is good for the environment is bad for business. But is that really how it is?

During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I saw a news report attacking one sector of the commercial fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay, located only an hour from our nation’s capitol. In the report, environmentalists and sports fishermen were angry over the harvesting of a type of fish called the menhaden. In fact, they are trying to pressure local governments in some Mid-Atlantic states to outlaw commercial fishing of menhaden entirely.

Now, my guess is that you’re asking yourself, “What on Earth is a menhaden?” Well, to be honest, it is a small, oily (one could even say unattractive) fish that you’d never see on anyone’s dinner plate. If someone does offer it to you for supper, I would advise passing and asking for the Gulf shrimp instead.

But just because this small, oily fish isn’t exactly appetizing to the eyes or taste buds, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. In fact, this little fish has some serious benefits, primarily because it is produces great amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids. People worried about heart disease often take Omega-3s to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. It has other uses as well, like being used as a protein supplement in animal feed and for plant fertilizers. In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover, this small, oily, less than attractive fish has a lot of uses that benefit people, plants and animals.

Because the menhaden is so valuable as a commodity, it is an important part of the economy in the towns and states where the fish are harvested. In my home state of Mississippi, the menhaden industry accounts for nearly 300 jobs, and that is in an economically depressed part of the nation. If these jobs were lost, it’s hard to say where these folks would find new employment, particularly in a region devastated by Hurricane Katrina just a few years ago.

However, this harvesting for economic gain is causing the conflict between sport fishermen, environmentalists and the people who fish for menhaden commercially.

Environmentalists and recreational fisherman claim that the menhaden diet is comprised exclusively of phytoplankton in the Chesapeake and, in abundance, this phytoplankton can cause dead zones in some sections of the Bay and destroy water quality. So environmentalists and sport fisherman insist that removing menhaden is bad for the Bay. The only problem with this assumption is that there is no real scientific evidence. In fact, a new study by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that the dietary habits of menhaden have little net effect on overall water quality in Chesapeake Bay, therefore undercutting the claim.

Sport fishermen also insist that commercial menhaden fishing is detrimental to game fish populations, because popular species like striped bass and bluefish eat menhaden. Despite this assertion, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission stated, “No studies have shown that the menhaden purse seine [net] fishery has any significant biological effect on any other species or fishery.” Yet that hasn’t stopped these opponents of commercial fishing from making unsubstantiated charges in an attempt to put an end to the fishing of the menhaden and the jobs that go with it.

Clashes between environmentalists and industry are always a shame. This is especially true in the case of the menhaden fishery because the science clearly states that commercial menhaden fishing poses no serious environmental threat to the Chesapeake Bay. Legislators have a responsibility to listen to both environmentalists and industry, and to take their concerns seriously. But when it comes to making decisions, I believe they should make those decisions based on sound science, not on conjecture or on prejudice. This is critical for the future of the United States, and essential for protecting jobs during this terrible economic recession.

Former Rep. Ronnie Shows was a Democratic U.S. Congressman from Mississippi and a member of the moderate Blue Dog Caucus.