Bunker or menhaden fish, seen while whale watching off Long Beach, N.Y. (Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography via Getty Images)
A proposal to study the menhaden population in the Chesapeake Bay was scaled back in the House Monday.
An earlier version of the bill from Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, asked the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to study the ecology, fishery impacts and economic importance of menhaden within the Chesapeake Bay over a two-year period.
But on Monday a House Rules subcommittee voted to amend the bill to only require VIMS to provide details of a potential study’s scope, including methodology, possible stakeholders, costs and timeline.
“I think your issue is totally legitimate, but we need to look at the health of the Bay in toto,” said Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, noting studies can take five to 10 years to complete.
Menhaden, a small forage fish used for bait and to be ground up or “reduced” for fishmeal and fish oil, have long been a subject of debate in the Virginia General Assembly, which regulated the fishery up until three years ago when that authority was transferred to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
Problems resurfaced over the past year after two net spills resulted in thousands of fish washing ashore in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore and the unintentional catching of several hundred red drum. Sportfishers subsequently demanded Omega Protein, the lone menhaden reduction fishery in the Bay, be forbidden from operating in the estuary.
In December, state regulators entered into a non-enforceable agreement with Omega and two bait fisheries in the Bay to not fish on the weekends or around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
Omega opposed Lewis’ original bill earlier this session, citing the need for more time to complete such a study. Lobbyist Steve Horton on Monday said the company supports the amended version.
“The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees the catch and the industry in terms of scientific research, in April of 2021 had a study that suggests it would take five to seven years to do this, possibly as much as 10,” Horton said.
The Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association as well as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia Conservation Network, League of Conservation Voters and Friends of the Rappahannock also supported the scaled-back version of the bill.
Supporters of the study have argued that while the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission assesses the health of the coastwide population to set fishing quotas, there hasn’t been a localized study of the fishery’s impact on the Bay. Sportfishers say local depletion of the menhaden stock is leading to reduced striped bass numbers, which is in turn hurting the recreational fishing economy in the area — a claim Omega has disputed.
“We’re often told there is no science to support our claims,” Steve Atkinson, president of the VSSA, told the committee Monday. “Now we finally have an opportunity to get some science.”
Two other menhaden bills — one putting a two-year-moratorium on the fishery in the Bay to conduct a study and the other allowing the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to make fishery regulation changes outside of the last three months of the year — have died this year.
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