A menhaden pulled from the Chesapeake Bay in the area of Jordan Point Marina. (Charlie Paullin / Virginia Mercury)
Legislative attempts to put a two-year moratorium on the menhaden reduction fishery in the Chesapeake Bay and expand the time period during which state officials can change the fishery regulations died Wednesday in committee.
The House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee unanimously voted to kill a bill from Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, that would have shut down the menhaden reduction fishery in the Chesapeake Bay for two years while the Virginia Marine Resources Commission conducted a study on its impacts.
Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, was absent from the meeting.
Anderson said while a coastwide stock assessment of menhaden found the fish population is healthy, no localized study has ever been conducted on populations in the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia’s inland waters.
“There’s never been a study as to why Virginia allows this type of fishing,” Anderson said, noting all other states on the East Coast ban it in their territorial waters.
Reedville-based Omega Protein is the lone menhaden reduction fishing company in the Bay.
The bill was supported by the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, which has petitioned to have Omega’s operations halted in the Bay because it says menhaden fishing there is causing the depletion of striped bass populations.
While the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees fisheries along the East Coast, has determined striped bass are no longer being overfished, an annual survey conducted by Maryland has found juvenile numbers remain below a long term average.
The state needs to take “a hard look at the science,” said Stephen Atkinson, president of the sportfishing association.
Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, noted that VMRC’s Menhaden Management Advisory Committee, which is composed of recreational and commercial fishermen and conservation groups, does meet regularly to review stock assessments.
“This is something that could be taken up,” Ransone said.
No one from Omega Protein offered testimony on the moratorium proposal Wednesday.
Legislators devoted far more discussion to another bill from Anderson that would have broadened the time period during which VMRC can make changes to menhaden regulations.
“This would give VMRC authority to propose regulations” at any time, Anderson said.
Anderson said the genesis for the proposal were several net tears by Omega boats over the summer that led to thousands of dead fish washing ashore in Northampton County and the inadvertent catching of 264 red drum.
The company cleaned up the spills, but the Marine Resources Commission couldn’t take any regulatory action until the fourth quarter of the year, as state law prohibits regulatory changes outside the last three months of the year. That limitation was part of a deal between Omega Protein and backers of a 2020 law that shifted fishery oversight from the General Assembly, which had overseen it for years, to VRMC.
In October, the menhaden management committee considered new regulations on the fishery, including the imposition of one-mile buffers around the Bay. But the commission instead opted to sign an agreement with the industry that had similar provisions but no enforceable penalties.
“Too much was happening at the same time,” Anderson said. “It was a mess.”
Jay Ford, Virginia policy and grassroots advisor with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the end-of-the-year constraint creates a “bottleneck” that deprives officials and groups of the time to properly review the proposed regulations.
But Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, said the regulatory window set by state law seems reasonable to allow the fishery to set up its operations and questioned why the VMRC couldn’t work on regulations throughout the year before adopting them at the end of it.
The bill was also struck down unanimously.
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