Bunker or menhaden fish, seen while whale watching off Long Beach, N.Y. (Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography via Getty Images)
A coalition of recreational fishing and conservation groups are asking Gov. Glenn Youngkin to close down a major portion of the Chesapeake Bay menhaden fishery “until science demonstrates” that it will not negatively affect the estuary’s ecosystem.
In a June 14 letter, 21 groups including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association said the harvesting of menhaden to be ground up for use in fish meal and oil — known as the reduction fishery — is endangering striped bass populations all along the East Coast.
“By removing more than 100 million pounds of menhaden every year from the Chesapeake Bay, the most important striped bass nursery on the East Coast, reduction fishing in Virginia is undermining the sportfishing economy and small businesses throughout the commonwealth,” they wrote.
But Omega Protein, the Reedville, Va.-based company that is the largest single player in the reduction fishery, called the request an “egregious and dramatic ask.”
“It’s just frankly not based on any real science,” said Ben Landry, a spokesperson for Omega. “It’s just mostly opinions and this hope or belief that future science is going to indicate menhaden is a problem for striped bass, but it really does ignore that striped bass is dramatically overfished.”
Quarrels over Omega and the small bony fish known as the menhaden have long been a fixture of Virginia politics.
The company operates the East Coast’s only reduction facility at Reedville, employing roughly 260 people, and takes in roughly three-quarters of all menhaden caught coastwide. It has also long wielded significant political influence in Richmond. Until 2020, when its management was transferred to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the menhaden fishery was Virginia’s only fishery to be managed directly by the General Assembly.
The transfer followed a federal threat to halt all catches after Omega exceeded the Chesapeake Bay menhaden harvest quota, a limit imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages fisheries resources in state waters along the East Coast.
Currently, Omega’s Chesapeake Bay quota is 51,000 metric tons of menhaden. According to Landry, its coastwide harvest is roughly 136,000 metric tons.
Beginning in 2020, the ASMFC also began managing menhaden differently, using an “ecological reference point” to calculate quotas. This approach considers the role a species plays within the broader ecosystem rather than solely relying on data like abundance and death rate.
Omega has been insistent that its menhaden harvest is sustainable, pointing out that a February 2020 stock assessment by the ASMFC found that the species “is not overfished nor experiencing overfishing.”
Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, acknowledged that the last ASMFC stock assessment found menhaden were not overfished but said the study had taken a coastwide view and failed to capture “localized depletion” in the Chesapeake Bay.
That’s particularly worrying because of the role the bay plays as a nursery to numerous marine species like striped bass, bluefish and weakfish that rely on menhaden for food, he said.
“Until science can prove this menhaden reduction fishery is not causing harm, we believe caution is absolutely called for here,” he said.
In their letter to Youngkin, the recreational fishing and conservation groups contend the economic impacts of menhaden depletion are already being felt.
“The striped bass fishery is the largest marine recreational fishery in the U.S., driving $166 million in recreational fishing activity in Virginia alone,” they wrote. “However, the economic value of striped bass fishing to Virginia has declined by over 50 percent in the past decade.”
Landry disputed the idea that halting the harvest of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay would help restore the East Coast’s striped bass population, arguing that reduction landings for decades were “orders of magnitude” higher than current quotas and that recreational fishers have overharvested striped bass.
Closing the Chesapeake Bay fishery would also have severe economic impacts, he said.
“If we could not fish in the bay, we would close (the Reedville) plant down,” he said. “We could not make up the lost fish catch in the bay out in the ocean. There’s too many factors that are at play in that, the most of which is weather.”
Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, said the administration and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission “are in regular communication and have met multiple times with the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association and other stakeholders including additional signers of the letter about these issues.”
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