Virginia at risk of sanctions after Omega announces it will exceed menhaden cap

A school of menhaden, which are harvested in the Chesapeake Bay. (Creative Commons via Pixabay)

The regional commission that oversees the East Coast’s most important fisheries on Monday laid the groundwork for disciplinary action against Virginia after Omega Protein announced last month that it planned to exceed the menhaden harvest cap in the Chesapeake Bay.

The unanimous decision to find Virginia out of compliance with the cap, made at a packed meeting of the Menhaden Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, came as little surprise. (Two federal agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, abstained from voting.)

This September, Omega Protein, a Canadian company that operates a major reduction fishery out of Reedville on the eastern edge of Virginia’s Northern Neck, declared that it planned to exceed the 51,000-ton harvest cap set by the ASMFC on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.

A small, oily fish that sits near the bottom of the marine food pyramid, menhaden are consumed by such species as bluefish and striped bass. Along the Atlantic coast, about three-quarters of all menhaden harvested come from Virginia, taken in by Omega Protein to be reduced for the production of fish oil and fishmeal. And uniquely among Virginia fisheries, menhaden are regulated by the General Assembly rather than the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commissions.

In fall 2017, amid fears of population declines, the ASMFC cut Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay menhaden cap 41 percent, from about 87,000 tons to 51,000 tons. But the General Assembly chose not to approve that cap, a move that left Virginia vulnerable to being found out of compliance with ASMFC management plans and being slapped with sanctions.

The state narrowly escaped that outcome this February, when the ASMFC “indefinitely” postponed its compliance ruling, “contingent upon the Chesapeake Bay reduction fishery not exceeding the cap.”

Omega’s September announcement reopened that discussion, leading to Monday’s decision.

“The cooperative fishery management process relies on all states along the coast working together,” said Chris Moore, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has vigorously supported the ASMFC’s cap reductions. “This is obviously the case where unfortunately it’s not one state that doesn’t want to get in compliance, it’s one company that doesn’t want to get in compliance.”

Omega, however, disputes that the reductions were necessary, calling them “arbitrarily low and unscientific.”

“The best available science points to a fishery that is healthy and sustainable,” said Bret Scholtes, CEO of Omega Protein, in a statement by the company in response to Monday’s decision. “As we have done for many years, we pledge to work with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to improve menhaden management, as we move toward ecological reference points.”

The issue will now be referred to ASMFC’s Policy Board and then will be subject to a vote by the full commission on whether to forward the matter to the U.S. Department of Commerce, which has the power to impose a moratorium on the species.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Department of Commerce has upheld 19 of the ASMFC’s last 20 decisions, only diverging from the regional body’s side in summer 2017, when it overruled the commission’s reduction of New Jersey’s summer flounder quota.