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Chesapeake Bay menhaden harvest won’t get new restrictions — for now

Close-up of damaged Menhaden fish on wire rack
Virginia is the only place on the East Coast that still allows harvesting menhaden within state waters.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission on Tuesday chose not to place new limits on the menhaden harvest. The decision came after an hours-long hearing that included roughly three dozen impassioned public commenters.

In fact, board members didn’t vote on the regulations at all. Instead, they approved a non-binding motion to try and reach an agreement with the menhaden industry.

The decision is the latest in a decades-long, politically fraught fight over the fishery that’s unique to the commonwealth.

Virginia is the only place on the East Coast that still allows harvesting menhaden within state waters. Omega Protein catches the fish and processes them into oil or fishmeal at a facility in Reedville.

Sportfishers and environmental groups have been pushing for a total ban on the menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay, citing impacts to the food chain. Striped bass rely on Atlantic menhaden for about a third of their diet, according to one study. Other animals like osprey also feed on it.

A petition supporting such a ban, circulated by the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association this year, garnered 9,200 signatures.

The proposed regulations this week would not have gone nearly as far.

VMRC staff recommended prohibiting menhaden fishing within one nautical mile of shorelines in state and Virginia Beach waters, as well as for a half-mile on each side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. 

They also sought to ban menhaden fishing around the weekends of Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. 

Officials hoped the changes would help prevent dead fish washing ashore when things go wrong, like when nets used to catch the fish rip. Tens of thousands of menhaden spilled onto Eastern Shore beaches this summer.

Omega uses a method called purse seine fishing. The process uses a large wall of netting deployed around an entire area or school of fish, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A skiff encircles the fish with the net, and a lead line is then pulled in to close the bottom of the net and prevent fish from swimming out.

The contentious issue brought such a large turnout to the meeting on Tuesday that the board moved the item to the front of its agenda.

VMRCs first hearing on menhaden regulations since the General Assembly transferred authority. Room already over capacity with many more waiting in the lobby.

Legislators across VA can be heard collectively breathing a sigh of relief that this is no longer in their purview:)

— Jay C. Ford (@jaycford) December 6, 2022

Comments were about evenly split between people in support of limits on the menhaden fishery, and those against. Many Omega employees argued the changes would make their jobs harder or possibly even eliminate them.

Omega has said its business can’t survive on the harvesting it does in the Atlantic Ocean alone. The company disputes state data that says only 6% of its catch would be impacted by the new rules.

Leading up to the meeting, Virginia AFL-CIO pleaded with people to oppose the regulations, which they said would “end good union jobs in Reedville.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration met with various interested groups while helping develop the regulatory proposal.

Travis Voyles, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources, said the governor’s office was warned that it’s a “no-win issue” but was determined to learn more.

“The bay is what makes Virginia, Virginia,” Voyles said at the meeting. “We must recognize that we are merely stewards of this resource, and as stewards, we have a constitutional, moral and economic imperative to preserve and protect them for future generations.”

For many years, lawmakers in Richmond controlled menhaden regulations directly, the only fishery not under the jurisdiction of the VMRC. 

After longtime efforts, that changed in 2020 and the commission took over.

There’s also an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that oversees Virginia and 14 other states along the East Coast.

That commission first set a cap for Omega’s harvest in the Chesapeake Bay in 2006. After the company was found out of compliance in recent years, the number of fish they’re allowed to catch dropped further.

The limit for what the company can draw from the bay is currently set at 51,000 metric tons annually — about 112 million pounds.

The Atlantic commission also started incorporating “ecological reference points” into their menhaden decisions, accounting for the fish’s role in the ecosystem.

Baby menhaden tend to stay in the bay for about a year before leaving the estuary to join adult schools, according to NOAA.

Officials' most recent assessment in early 2020 determined Atlantic menhaden are not overfished. Those advocating for a ban in the bay say that looked at the overall coastal population, not specifically the Chesapeake.

Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a statement following Tuesday's vote that he's disappointed the commission didn't take up the recommendations, which the foundation ssaid would help reduce conflicts between Omega's fleet and others who use the bay. 

“This was a missed opportunity to better manage Virginia’s menhaden purse seine fisheries while working to reduce the damage caused by menhaden net spills," Moore wrote. "The proposals developed by VMRC staff were an appropriate step in addressing the numerous concerns citizens from throughout the commonwealth have about Virginia’s menhaden fishery."

Under the motion passed this week, the VMRC hopes Omega will voluntarily agree not to fish in bay waters on certain holiday weekends or within a half-mile of the CBBT. They also want the company to work with state officials on possible no-fishing buffer areas.

Read the original story on WHRO's website.

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