Menhaden are fish near the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay food chain. They’re good for crab bait and they’re pursued on an industrial scale by Omega Protein Corporation to be turned into fish oil and fish meal for factory fish farms.
The Canadian company owns several U.S. fishing fleets, including one in Reedville, Virginia.
This year, Omega’s Virginia fleet, driven into the Chesapeake Bay by rough weather in the open Atlantic, has exceeded its catch limits by 16,000 metric tons—the equivalent of 86 blue whales—and the season isn’t over until Thanksgiving.
That has the company, and Virginia, which is supposed to regulate menhaden fishing in its waters, in trouble with federal fisheries regulators.
At a meeting in New Hampshire this week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, representing regulators from Florida to Maine, voted unanimously to find Virginia out of compliance. That means those 16,000 metric tons will be deducted from Virginia’s quota next year. It was 51,000 metric tons this year, or the equivalent of 275 blue whales.
Eric Reid, a commercial fisherman who represented Rhode Island on the commission, was angered by Omega’s actions, in particular a letter the company wrote to regulators saying the would be exceeding their cap.
“I got boats sitting at the dock, too,” he fumed. “And when the fed said fishing over, we stayed tied to the dock. We didn't write a letter saying, hey I've got 150 employees as well and we need to make money and we're going. We stopped. It kinda rubs my nose in it a little bit. I don't care for it.”
Virginia's General Assembly has refused to adopt a Chesapeake Bay harvest cap for menhaden, despite pleas from federal fisheries regulators. Many of the members receive campaign money from Omega.
But Virginia's commissioner, Steve Bowman, voted with the others to find his state out of compliance.
“First and foremost, on behalf of the Commonwealth, I'd like to apologize for being in this situation,” he said.
Governor Ralph Northam and Matthew Strickler, the state secretary of natural resources, “have demonstrated a desire to improve not only water quality but the environment in general,” he added.
“It's been one of the hallmarks of their administration and team. So, to be found out of compliance on such an important matter is very, very disturbing.”
Menhaden are linked to the health of other species like striped bass, which are now experiencing a decline partly linked to poor diet. At the same meeting this week, the commission voted to reduce Chesapeake Bay striped bass commercial quotas by 18 percent and limit anglers to a bag limit of one fish that must be 18 inches or larger.
Maryland's commissioner, Lynn Fegley, challenged Omega spokesman Ben Landry, who claimed science shows the menhaden stock is fine. The commission is awaiting newer science based on what are referred to as ecological reference points to give a better picture of the health of a species.
“I would just ask you, Mr. Landry, to keep that in your mind,” she said. “Because, we don't want to hear, I personally don't want to hear, that ecological reference point isn't set appropriately because it will be a value judgment.”
In addition to deducting the amount of metric tons of fish exceeded by Virginia from next year's harvest, the commission will once again ask the Virginia legislature to adopt the bay cap during its next session, which begins in January. A letter also will be sent to Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross who will consider penalties. Any penalties could affect smaller menhaden fisheries in the state.