Northam asks federal government to shut down Virginia’s menhaden fishery

Gov. Ralph Northam (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Dec. 11, 2018)

In an unusual step by a state executive, Gov. Ralph Northam has asked the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to shut down Virginia’s menhaden fishery after its main participant, Omega Protein, announced that it would exceed the federal cap limiting the taking of the small oily fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

“Given these actions by an international company, imposing a moratorium on the menhaden harvest is the most appropriate way to bring about a shift to responsible management of menhaden,” Northam wrote in a Nov. 20 letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

The closure of the fishery, he also noted, “will also provide the motivation necessary to ensure that Virginia’s General Assembly puts in place new measures to ensure future compliance with (regional) fishery management plans.”

The move may signal eroding support for Omega Protein, which has long wielded expansive political power in Virginia. Omega, based in Reedville at the far eastern tip of the Northern Neck, has for years thwarted efforts to bring Virginia’s menhaden fishery under the control of the Virginia Marine Resources Council. Currently it is the only fishery in the state directly overseen by the General Assembly.

In 2017, however, Omega Protein was acquired by Canadian company Cooke, Inc. in a $500 million deal. Shortly afterward, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regional body that oversees fisheries along the East Coast, slashed the cap placed on menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay from 87,000 tons annually to 51,000 tons.

The General Assembly, however, in its 2018 session declined to approve that cap, a decision that laid the groundwork for Omega to flout the regional commission’s order. The company has consistently argued there was no scientific basis for the cap reduction, and this September announced it would exceed the 51,000-ton cap and instead “comply with the existing Bay cap codified in Virginia law.”

Subsequently, the ASMFC voted unanimously to find Virginia out of compliance with the regional menhaden management plan. That decision started a 30-day clock for the Secretary of Commerce to determine whether a moratorium should be placed on the fishery.

Northam’s letter asks that a meeting be held between Ross’ office and Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation hailed Northam’s move, with senior ecosystem scientist Chris Moore urging the General Assembly to “transfer the management of the menhaden fishery to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission like every other saltwater fishery in Virginia.”