RICHMOND — Virginia regulators will consider changes to commercial menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay following requests from recreational anglers to put an end to the fishery.
Among the changes the Virginia Marine Resources Commission will take up are new regulations creating a no-fishing buffer one nautical mile wide around Virginia shorelines and Virginia Beach and a half-nautical mile wide around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Another proposal would expand the days around holidays when fishing is prohibited.
The proposals follow repeated requests from the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association to stop menhaden fishing in the Bay, including a petition of 11,000 signatures that was presented to the office of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year.
“The proposed regulations are a good start, but much more is needed,” said VSSA President Steve Atkinson. However, he said, “The Youngkin administration, for whatever reason, was not willing to do what our petition asked them to do, which was to move the fishery out of the bay until science can show that it is not causing harm.”
Reedville-based Omega Protein, the lone player in the Bay’s menhaden reduction fishery, which processes catches into fishmeal or fish oil, says the new regulations take away available fishing grounds that include uninhabited areas. Taking operations completely out of the Bay into less safe conditions in the ocean would ultimately force the company to stop operating.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” said Omega Protein spokesperson Ben Landry.
Legislators are also getting involved in the issue. Earlier this month, Republican Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, pre-filed legislation for the 2023 General Assembly session seeking a two-year moratorium on menhaden reduction fishing “in any territorial sea or inland waters of the Commonwealth” while the state studies the impacts of the fishery. A separate bill would also allow the VMRC to make changes to fishery regulations outside the October to December window that state law currently allows, a protection Omega sought when the commission took over management of the fishery from the General Assembly in 2020.
The regulatory proposals come after two net spills by the company over the summer, one of which washed thousands of menhaden ashore in Northampton County.
With the new one-mile buffers, Omega Protein will have to deploy its nets in deeper waters, which will decrease the likelihood that they will get snagged on the Bay or ocean floor, explained Pat Geer, chief of the fisheries management division at VMRC. Fewer days for fishing around holidays are also intended to prevent fish spills from reaching the coastline during high-tourism days.
The regulations are a happy balance between what the recreational anglers want and the fishing operations want, Geer said.
“That’s what our job is,” Geer said. “To do this as the best benefit to everybody.”
A complete removal of menhaden fishing operations from the Bay isn’t being proposed because there is no evidence that menhaden are being overfished, Geer said.
Anglers have argued overfishing of menhaden in the Bay has led to the depletion of the striped bass population there.
Recent coastwide stock assessments of striped bass by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission show that the population is on track to recover following quota reductions and time for spawning stock to replenish, Geer noted. The same commission, which oversees fisheries on the East Coast, also increased the coastwide quota limits for menhaden this month because of data showing the population is healthy.
But those assessments don’t provide specific numbers for striped bass and menhaden populations within the Chesapeake Bay. The ASMFC has imposed a 51,000-ton limit on menhaden catches within the Bay, but a larger study of the population there would likely take years to conduct, said Geer.
Not enough, but also too much
Atkinson of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association said while he is pleased the VMRC is taking some action, the one-mile buffer is not enough to conserve menhaden. A two-mile buffer would be more protective, he said.
While striped bass populations are recovering, Atkinson said Virginia should be “extra careful in the Bay” to make sure there are enough forage fish.
Omega already follows a one-mile buffer around the Eastern Shore and a three-mile buffer around Virginia Beach, Landry said. A reduction in days to fish around holidays also “takes food out of the mouth of our fishermen,” he said.
The Youngkin administration granted a meeting with Omega Protein to discuss the proposed regulations after decisions on them had already been made, Landry added, and not in “real time.” He said the Youngkin administration had relied on data that said Omega Protein caught 6% of its hauls within one mile of shoreline despite National Marine Fisheries Service data showing 15% of the catch was within that buffer.
Data used to determine the percentage of fishing nets that would be displaced by the one-mile buffer are from Captain’s Daily Fishing Reports, documentation from the VMRC shows.
“It just seems that this is a concerted effort by wealthy recreational fisherman and its harming blue collar commercial watermen in Virginia,” Landry said. “It’s really sad.”
Youngkin Press Secretary Macaulay Porter said the governor has made the Bay one of his top priorities.
“Since day one, the Administration and VMRC have been engaged with all stakeholders from Virginia’s commercial and recreational fishing sectors about these issues and the importance of ensuring commonsense solutions for protecting and cleaning up the Bay,” Porter said. “We will continue to look for solutions that protect the health of the Bay and all of Virginia’s economic activities that rely on the Bay.”
Anderson said his bill to halt reduction fishing in the Bay for two years while the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality studies its environmental impacts is intended to address a lack of scientific information.
“We have to have metrics to see what’s going on,” Anderson said. “If I’m wrong then Omega will never have to hear from me again.”
The delegate also wants to expand VMRC’s ability to change regulations outside the end of the year to allow the oversight body to take action following emergencies such as net spills.
“No other wildlife management (plan) says you can create regulations only three months out of the year,” Anderson said.
While supporting the goals of the legislation, Atkinson noted that bills have a difficult journey to get passed and argued the VMRC has the authority to issue a moratorium on the fishery.
Landry noted that the three-month window for changing regulations was part of a deal negotiated under the administration of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to allow the business to make any adjustments in advance of its fishing season.
The VMRC will meet Tuesday in Fort Monroe.
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