Monday, April 15, 2024

House Committee Delays Action on Study of Menhaden in Chesapeake Bay

A menhaden pulled from the Chesapeake Bay in the area of Jordan Point Marina. (Charlie Paullin / Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers put off a decision about conducting a study on whether menhaden are actually declining in the Chesapeake Bay until next year.

The House Rules Committee on Monday delayed consideration of the bill from Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, until the 2025 session. The legislation would have mandated that the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences conduct a three-year study of the issue, a topic of hot debate in Virginia, after a workgroup over the summer created a framework for the research.

“It was a huge disappointment to me for it not to go forward, because there had been a lot of state work done by a wide range of stakeholders,” said Ware. “This is carrying forward that study on just a critically important resource in the Bay.”

Asked about the decision, committee Chair Luke Torian, D-Prince William, said in a brief interview, “I did what I was told to do.”

Menhaden are tiny, nutrient-rich fish that serve as forage for striped bass and osprey and are also harvested for reduction into fishmeal and fish oil. Omega Protein, which operates boats out of Reedville and is the lone player in the Chesapeake Bay reduction fishery, has long been a significant political player in Richmond.

In 2020, facing a federal threat to shut down the fishery, the General Assembly agreed to transfer oversight of menhaden from the legislature to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which oversees all other state fisheries. However, conflicts over the fish have not ended: Some environmental and recreational fishing groups have argued Omega is depleting the menhaden population in the Bay, causing the dwindling of other species like striped bass.

Omega in turn has insisted there is no evidence of localized depletion of menhaden, pointing out that a coastwide assessment of the species’ stock by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission found the population is healthy.

In 2023, a bill from former Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, proposed legislation directing the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to study the ecology, fishery impacts and economic importance of menhaden within the Chesapeake Bay. The proposal was later scaled back to order the creation of a workgroup to determine what would be needed for the study. That group, which included representatives of Omega Protein, recreational fishing and conservation groups, state agencies and universities, finished its task, but lawmakers have hit pause on the study.

A VIMS spokesperson said the recommended study was the result of “thoughtful engagement with a broad range of stakeholders.”

“There are many important questions about the status of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay and the influence of a variety of factors that might affect their stock size and abundance,” the spokesperson said. “We believe that the study we proposed, developed in collaboration with stakeholders most vested in menhaden management decisions, will provide important data and that it represents the best ‘next step’ relative to future policy decisions by VMRC.”

Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, which has been pushing for the study as well as petitioning to shut down Omega’s operations in the Bay, said it was “another sad day for the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia’s 320,000 saltwater anglers.”

But while Atkinson and other groups accused Omega of lobbying against the study proposal, a spokesperson for the company in an email said Omega had taken no stance on the bill, despite its concerns that the study “would not answer the primary question most people are after; i.e., How many menhaden are in the Bay? and What should the Bay menhaden harvest be?”

“The menhaden industry has a long history of working cooperatively and collaboratively with the scientific community,” said spokesperson Ben Landry. “We look forward to continuing future conversations about how to proceed with management that uses sound science.”

Two other bills related to Omega’s operations will also be heard this session. Dels. Hillary Pugh Kent, R-Richmond County, and Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack, have introduced legislation that increases penalties for people who threaten to or actually damage or destroy commercial fishing vessels following reports of interference by the company.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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