Commentary

Who are the governor’s marine commission picks there to serve?

May 19, 2022 12:02 am

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

By Stephen Atkinson

In a news release late Friday evening, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced appointments to various state boards, including the nine member Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the body that manages the commonwealth’s fisheries.    

Of the governor’s four appointments to the VMRC, three represent commercial fishing interests from the Reedville area.  

For the hundreds of thousands of recreational anglers and small businesses in the commonwealth who were counting on the Governor to fulfill his promise to create a state where “businesses can prosper . . . and people – not politicians – are in charge,” this decision is a kick in the gut.  

That’s because Omega Protein, the industrial fishing juggernaut, and their foreign parent company, Cooke Inc, call Reedville home. Omega Protein catches hundreds of millions of menhaden, a small baitfish, which they grind up for use as animal feed, fish oil and other byproducts. Virginia is the only state on the East Coast that still allows this type of fishing, and for years, the recreational fishing community has been concerned about the adverse impacts of this fishery on the Chesapeake Bay. In particular, striped bass are very dependent on menhaden for food, and the heavy harvest of menhaden in the bay is believed to be contributing to the decline of this important predator. 

In recent years, however, some progress has been made with an “ecosystem” approach to managing this fishery, and by the legislature ceding control to the VMRC.  

These appointments put that progress at risk.

Instead of balancing the VMRC with representatives from various backgrounds, it appears that the governor has stacked the commission with commercial fishermen who will look out for the interests of the largest fishing operation on the East Coast. Furthermore, the commission will now no longer have representation from the charter fishing or environmental sectors. 

With this decision, Gov. Youngkin’s image as a new face “for the people,” is tarnished.  

That said, it is not too late for the governor to change course. He can still demonstrate his support for small businesses, recreational fishing, and a healthy Chesapeake Bay. Millions of Virginia residents would like to see him do so.  

The Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association is the largest recreational fishing organization in the state, representing anglers who seek to enjoy the national pastime of fishing. Recreational fishing is not just a hobby, however: it contributes $460 million to Virginia’s coastal economy, and it provides more than 6,000 jobs. In fact, this economic benefit to the Commonwealth dwarfs that of the commercial interests that appear to have the governor’s ear.

The first step the governor must take to create a more balanced VMRC is to nominate a strong conservation candidate to head up the commission. This will help to restore trust among Virginia’s recreational fishing community — and benefit Virginia’s economy. In the end it will allow the governor to make good on his campaign promise to be create a government that is controlled by “people – not politicians.”

Steve Atkinson is president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association.

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