Federal government orders Virginia menhaden fishery shut down

By: - December 19, 2019 2:13 pm

Bunker or menhaden fish, seen while whale watching off Long Beach, N.Y. (Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography via Getty Images)

There is no joy in Reedville — mighty Omega has struck out.

On Thursday U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross ordered Virginia’s menhaden fishery, the largest on the East Coast, shut down after Reedville-based Omega Protein exceeded a fishing cap set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

“A moratorium on fishing for Atlantic menhaden in Virginia state waters and possession of and landing of Atlantic menhaden if harvested in Virginia state waters will be imposed effective June 17, 2020,” wrote Chris Oliver, assistant administrator for fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a letter to the ASMFC dated Dec. 17.  

The move followed a request by nine Atlantic state governors, including Virginia’s own Ralph Northam, to impose a moratorium on the fishery.

Omega Protein condemned the decision, although spokesman Ben Landry said that the company wasn’t shocked by it.

“This really boils down to the ASMFC not basing decisions on the available science, doing whatever they want, and NOAA and the secretary of commerce agreeing with that,” he said.

Environmental and sportfishing groups, however, hailed the moratorium as a necessary move to protect the species.

Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association, called the ruling a demonstration of “clear conservation leadership.” 

“This decision comes at a critical time because menhaden’s top predator, Atlantic striped bass, is currently in poor condition and the Chesapeake Bay is the primary spawning and nursery area for the species,” he said in a statement. 

A little fish with a big impact

Menhaden, a small, oily fish processed for oils, supplements and fishmeal, has long batted above its average politically in Virginia, where it is the only fish regulated by the General Assembly rather than the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. 

That exception has been carefully protected by Omega, a major Northern Neck employer and significant contributor to Virginia political campaigns, which in 2017 was acquired by Canadian company Cooke, Inc. 

For years, legislators in the General Assembly — including, most recently, Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach — have been proposing laws that would bring menhaden under the control of the VMRC, but all have failed.

Omega’s fortunes seem to have shifted in recent months, however, as the company has resisted deep cuts to the fishing cap placed by the ASMFC on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Previously, the annual catch had been limited to 87,000 tons annually, but in 2017, the commission slashed that number to 51,000 tons in response to concerns that stocks were being depleted.

Environmental groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation argued that data showed declining populations, particularly among the young fish who spend their early years in the estuary, and that limits were necessary to ensure that stocks remained stable given the fish’s foundational place in the marine food chain.

Omega has disputed these findings, contending that there is no reliable scientific basis for restricting the fishery and that studies have shown the population is sustainable. 

“The company maintains that the 41 percent decrease in the Bay cap has never been based on science, and is unnecessary for the conservation of the menhaden fishery,” a statement from Omega released after the commerce decision said. “Since it was first implemented in 2006, no evidence has been produced showing that it is necessary, or that localized depletion of menhaden has ever occurred in the Chesapeake Bay.”

In 2018, the General Assembly seemed to side with the fishing company when it refused to confirm the new ASMFC cap. Omega alluded to that decision this September when it announced it would exceed the 51,000 ton limit and instead comply with the prior 87,000 ton limit “codified in Virginia law.”

That move, however, set in motion a chain of events that culminated in Thursday’s moratorium order. 

On Oct. 31, the ASMFC formally found Virginia out of compliance with the menhaden management plan, and on Nov. 15 it forwarded the issue to Ross for a decision. Ross had 30 days to respond; Thursday’s announcement came two days after that deadline. (While Oliver’s letter is dated Dec. 17, ASMFC said Wednesday that it had not yet heard from Commerce.)

Landry said Omega intended to work with the commission to bring the fishery into compliance before the moratorium went into effect, but that “it’s truly an unfortunate day when a healthy fishery is subject to a moratorium because of politics, not science.” 

The menhaden season in the bay ended before Thanksgiving, so no boats will need to be withdrawn in response to the announcement. 

“Obviously nobody’s going to lose their job before June, but we’re going to have to start figuring out how we adjust to these lower numbers in the bay,” Landry said.

Within the General Assembly session only weeks away, the ruling may give fuel to legislative proposals to bring the menhaden fishery under Virginia Marine Resources Commission control.

The VMRC, said Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist Chris Moore, “manages every other saltwater fishery in Virginia and can quickly bring the commonwealth into compliance.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.