Sportfishing group presents petition to move Omega Protein out of Chesapeake Bay

Possible regulatory changes could be proposed this fall

By: - October 27, 2022 12:04 am

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

The Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association is calling on the governor and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to halt menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, this time with the backing of a petition with 11,000 signatures.

Association president Stephen Atkinson presented the petition to the office of Gov. Glenn Youngkin Monday before presenting it to the VMRC on Tuesday.

“We want something done about this,” Atkinson told the Mercury as the petition was delivered to Youngkin’s office.

Youngkin and Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles have been discussing potential regulatory changes since July, according to Pat Geer, chief of fisheries management with VMRC. Meetings in November and December are lined up for public debate and potential regulatory changes.

The petition is the latest move by the nonprofit, which advocates for saltwater and recreational fishing, following a letter sent to the governor over the summer that cited reductions in striped bass populations in the Bay as a reason to close the menhaden fishery there. 

Striped bass, a prized catch in the Bay, forage on menhaden, which are prevalent up and down the East Coast and use the Chesapeake Bay as a nursery. The striped bass fishing industry has been in steep decline for years, Atkinson said. 

In 2019, a coastwide assessment showed overfishing had caused declines among striped bass. Geer said the coastwide population is on track to reach a 2029 population increase goal. A new assessment of the population by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees fisheries in state waters along the East Coast, will be presented to the Striped Bass Fishery Management Board of the ASMFC Nov. 7.

Among the arguments marshaled by sportfishers for closure of the Bay menhaden fishery are several net breaks that occurred this summer, resulting in thousands of menhaden washing ashore and the accidental catching of 264 red drum. 

The claims that menhaden are being overfished in the Bay are all levied against Omega Protein, an industrial fishing operation that has argued that scientific data don’t support the contention that menhaden fishing is reducing the striped bass population to such an extent that it warrants the closure of the Bay fishery. Omega also says closing the Chesapeake menhaden fishery would hurt its business, which has long been an economic driver in the region.

Atkinson acknowledges that there hasn’t been a stock assessment showing how fishing menhaden in the Bay impacts striped bass but said he believes the species in the Bay are underfed. He wants the company to shift its operations from the Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.

“Is the governor going to prioritize the profits of a Canadian-owned company that’s taking resources from our Bay versus acting to protect the Bay?” Atkinson said. “What’s it going to be?”

‘The beginning of the end’?

Omega Protein, based in Reedville on Virginia’s Northern Neck, has been pulling in menhaden from the Bay for over 140 years, according to spokesperson Ben Landry. The company, which was acquired by Canadian firm Cooke Inc. in 2017, provides jobs to about 250 people, all but one of whom reside in Virginia, with an annual payroll of about $25 million.

The net spills over the summer were two accidents among 2,000 uses of the nets, Landry said. 

The one just after the July 4 holiday occurred about eight-tenths of a mile from the Eastern Shore and resulted in 10,000 fish being collected and taken to a landfill. The company paid for beachgoers’ temporary membership at a nearby country club to use its pools and restaurants.

“We tried to make it right,” Landry said. “We knew that it was our mistake and we did the best we could to mitigate the issue.”

The other spill stemmed from a spotter plane not seeing a school of red drum underneath menhaden being caught, so the net was opened up to release them, said Landry. 

He noted that about $200,000 was spent to clean up each spill, and the company is investing in a new vessel to collect fish from any spills going forward.

“You’re not in business for 144 years if you’re flippant about regulations and flippant about other user groups,” Landry said. “We do our best to be good partners of the Bay and will continue to do so.”

The fishing operation is confined to a 51,000 metric -ton catch quota in the Bay set by the ASMFC, while smaller bait fishermen don’t need to limit their catches, Landry added.

He said the request to remove one-third of Omega’s operations from the Bay to the Atlantic Ocean would “be the beginning of the end” because it would prevent the company from being able to fish in calmer waters when inclement weather creates high seas in the Atlantic that make it difficult to safely operate.

“I think being able to catch zero fish in the Chesapeake Bay would ultimately shut this plant down,” Landry said.

Potential changes

Under a 2020 law, oversight of the menhaden fishery was switched from the General Assembly to the VMRC, and any changes to regulations have to be made between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. The law also created a Menhaden Management Advisory Committee but left the definition of the geographic limits of the fishery with legislators. 

Menhaden regulations have plagued lawmakers for decades. Why were they able to find a fix now?

The changes were made after Omega announced it would exceed its ASMFC cap in 2019, leading the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to order closure of the Virginia menhaden fishery

Menhaden fishing boundaries are set by state code, and the 2020 law transferring authority over the fishery to the VMRC does not appear to have included the power to modify those boundaries, leaving the latitude regulators have to narrow or eliminate the Bay fishery unclear. Landry acknowledged the intent of the law change was to give management of the fishery to the commission but said any Bay ban imposed by it could need upholding by a judge.

Geer declined to provide specifics on any proposals to change regulations but said they would be unveiled at a Nov. 28 Menhaden Management Advisory Committee Meeting. 

“There is a desire to do something, and what that something is going to be, I’m not allowed to say at this point,” Geer said.

The VMRC will then meet Dec. 6 to hold a public hearing on the proposals and make a final decision ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline.

At that time, Geer said the VMRC could accept recommendations or modify them within limits set by the recommendation. For example, if a quota is proposed to be reduced from five fish to three fish, VMRC could set the number at four but not one.

Financial data on Omega Protein’s operations in the Bay are confidential, Geer said, following a “rule of threes” established by the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program and National Marine Fisheries Service.  The rule states that if there are fewer than three operations within a specific fishery, catch and revenue data for that part of the fishery can be kept confidential. Omega Protein is the only large-scale menhaden operation in the Bay.

This story has been corrected to fix meeting dates and the estimated number of red drum caught, as well as to clarify the Rule of Three.

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.