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Latest petition to reduce Omega Protein’s menhaden catch limit is rejected

A menhaden pulled from the Chesapeake Bay in the area of Jordan Point Marina. (Photo via Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury)
A menhaden pulled from the Chesapeake Bay in the area of Jordan Point Marina. (Photo via Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury)

Another attempt to impose tighter regulations on the menhaden fishery in Virginia was defeated Tuesday and interested parties again called for the state to study the menhaden population.

This story was reported and written by our media partner The Virginia Mercury

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted 5-3 to deny a petition from the Chesapeake Legal Alliance that sought to limit the catch of Omega Protein, the lone menhaden reduction fishery in the Chesapeake Bay.

Recreational fishing groups and other supporters of a cap have argued that overfishing menhaden, a tiny, yet nutrient rich fish, is causing the decline of the Bay’s striped bass population.

“I just don’t see the direct link,” said VMRC member Lynn Kellum, who made the motion to deny the petition.

Shanna Madsen, VMRC deputy chief of the fisheries management division, pointed to misrepresentations of research in the petition that had been criticized by peer researchers. The harm to the striped bass, which depends on more than just menhaden, is coming from overfishing, Madsen said.

Regulating the menhaden catch has long been a contentious point in state government with oversight transferred from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resource Commission in 2021.

The 42-page petition was one of the more robust of recent requests to produce stricter regulations on Reedville-based Omega Protein, which catches the menhaden and reduces them to fishmeal and oil. The petition received 1,774 comments in support, of which 718 were from the National Audubon Society, and 158 comments against it during a comment period at the beginning of this year.

Virginia law on fishery management plans, “requires this type of analysis, but it also requires more than the absolute [harvest] maximum the federal commission sets,” said David Reed, an attorney with the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which filed the petition on behalf of the Southern Maryland Recreational Anglers Association. “For those reasons, we respectfully request the commissioner consider greater restrictions than simply defaulting to the maximum harvest.”

The Maryland group is also suing VMRC in Richmond City Circuit Court for not using a conservation analysis, as the group claims the Virginia’s regulation determining Omega’s catch requires, when it adjusted the state’s menhaden catch allocation for Omega Protein to meet limits set by the Atlantic States Marine and Fisheries Commission, which overseas fisheries along the East Coasts.

The petition, which included measures such as putting a moratorium on the fishery in the Bay and creating a one-mile no fishing buffer around the entirety of the Bay, was intended, in part, to provide a blueprint for VMRC to craft a regulation using conservation measures in the event a Richmond City Circuit Court judge ordered VMRC to revisit the limits.

“[VMRC is] relying on a federal commission that’s not in the business of exploring the nuances of the Bay,” Reed told the Mercury in a phone interview Tuesday. “They’re in the business of exploring the coast.”

Madsen, the deputy chief of the fisheries management division, said more science is needed to understand menhaden in the Bay.

“I would love to sit up here and say this is the number, this is the scientifically supported Bay cap, and I can’t and it’s incredibly frustrating to me,” said Madsen, added the current bay cap of 51,000 metric tons isn’t based on any scientific finding but is based on historic landings, or catches. “We don’t know if the Bay cap should be significantly lowered, we don’t know if the Bay cap could be increased. We don’t know if the Bay cap needs to exist at all.”

The Legislature was considering a bill to fund a three-year study during the session that just ended, but the  effort never made it out of the House of Delegates Rules Committee. Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, told VMRC Tuesday, “it appears, by all accounts, that the industry helped lobby against the study.”

After the meeting, Atkinson told the Mercury, Omega Protein, “can’t have it both ways,” by saying science is needed to show they aren’t harming the menhaden population in the Bay and then work to block the needed science.

Monty Diehl, CEO of Ocean Harvesters, which catches the menhaden for Omega Protein, on Tuesday denied that the company lobbied against the study. Omega Protein spokesperson Ben Landry told the Mercury after the meeting a concern they have with the study that they’ve shared before is its shortened time period, compared to a five-year effort ASMFC proposed in 2021.

“We all want the same thing,” Landry said, “A sound survey to determine what is the baseline abundance.”

Instead of lobbying against the study, Landry said the company pushed for a bill this past session from Del. Hillary Pugh-Kent, R-Richmond County, that created penalties for people who harass commercial fishermen. The measure was signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The VMRC Tuesday had considered taking up specific measures in the petition to codify the one-mile no fishing buffer around the Chesapeake Bay shorelines and increase oversight of the vessels, as well as a request from VMRC member Patrick Hand to determine if Omega’s fishing days in the Bay could be reduced. Those also failed to advance with members of the commission suggesting the Menhaden Management Advisory Committee look into them.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that we do not have the regional information that we need and that the efforts to acquire that information or develop that information were halted this year,” said VMRC member Heather Lusk, adding maybe some new regulations on the fishery could incentivize cooperation for the study. “It is incredibly frustrating and frankly disappointing.”