Saturday, December 2, 2023

Virginia Regulators Enter into Agreement with Menhaden Fishery

A.J. Erskine, far right, speaks as a member of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission at a meeting Tuesday. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Following months of negotiations on proposed regulations and hours of testimony Tuesday, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission approved an agreement with the menhaden industry that will restrict fishing in the Chesapeake Bay but doesn’t carry any enforceable penalties.

In a 5-4 vote, the commission voted to approve a memo of understanding stating the Bay’s lone reduction fishery, Omega Protein, and two bait fisheries agree to not fish in state waters of the Chesapeake Bay around Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day, as well as on Saturdays and Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day and within a half-mile of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

The agreement also calls for the whole fishery to work collaboratively with the governor’s office and the General Assembly to maintain a buffer where fishing will not occur in waters along the densely populated areas of the Eastern Shore, Chesapeake Bay and Virginia Beach region.

The commission initially considered regulations that would have created 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, along with 17 days of no fishing around holidays.

The proposed regulations would have applied to both Omega Protein and the bait fisheries.

The regulations were proposed following two net spills by Omega Protein over the summer that resulted in thousands of dead menhaden washing ashore in Northampton County. Subsequently, the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association delivered a petition with 11,000 signatures to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office asking Virginia to shut down the reduction fishery in the Bay.

Youngkin appointees Spencer Headley, A.J. Erskine, Lynn Kellum and Chairman Jamie Green, along with James Minor III, an appointee of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, voted in favor of the agreement with the industry.  Board members Glen France, John Tankard III and Heather Lusk, all appointed by Northam, and Youngkin appointee Will Bransom voted against the agreement.

Prior to the vote, the board’s legal counsel stressed that the agreement doesn’t carry any force of law.

Erksine, of the Northern Neck-based Cowart Seafood Corporation and Bevans Oyster Company, said the proposed regulations didn’t address the problem of net spills and argued the state should increase enforcement of cleanup obligations after spills. Omega has said it has invested in a vessel to catch spilled fish before they reach the shore.

“I just think we’re falling a little short of our responsibility if we don’t address the issues at hand,” Erskine said.

Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles called the agreement with the menhaden industry a “good potential path forward,” while Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said “the administration and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission have been engaged with all stakeholders from Virginia’s commercial and recreational fishing sectors about these issues and the importance of commonsense solutions for protecting and cleaning up the Bay.”

During the five-hour discussion on the topic, VMRC Chief of Fisheries Management Pat Geer said the proposed regulations would have prevented Omega from setting about 6.4% of its nets in the Bay.

The sportfishers want the fishery shut down because they say overfishing of menhaden is leading to the depletion of other species like striped bass.

However, Virginia Institute of Marine Science professor Rob Latour said coastwide menhaden landings have fallen to less than 50% of the 700,000 metric tons of landings that occurred at its peak, and striped bass populations have been periodically overfished.

“There’s very rarely a single smoking gun,” Latour said

Virginia Institute for Marine Science Professor Rob Latour speaks at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission meeting Tuesday. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury)

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently increased the coastwide quota for menhaden by 20% after concluding the population is healthy.

But Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association President Steve Atkinson said coastwide menhaden data don’t reflect the impacts of the fishery on the Bay.

David Reed, executive director of the Maryland-based Chesapeake Legal Alliance, said the VMRC is ignoring a lack of science on the Bay’s menhaden population.

“They are covering their eyes and ears to the best available science,” Reed said.

Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, has proposed legislation to close the Bay fishery for two years to conduct a study of the impact of menhaden reduction fishing. He also has proposed legislation to expand the time frame during which regulations can be changed. Currently they can only be altered from October to December.

This article was updated to state that France, Tankard, Lusk and Bransom voted against the agreement.

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