Members of the Atlantic Coast state commission that oversees the protection of key marine species has warned Virginia of looming enforcement action that could include a moratorium on fishing for menhaden in state waters.
The warning comes after the General Assembly failed to comply with a new limit on menhaden harvested by Omega Protein Corp. from the Chesapeake Bay.
During its biannual meeting last week in Arlington, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board declared that the state is not complying with a new mandatory ASMFC management plan that effectively targets Omega Protein Corp., the only reduction fishery on the coast.
Menhaden is a tiny fish sold by fishermen as bait to catch blue crabs and commercially rendered for its oil and byproducts at Omega’s Reedville plant. The company gets 85 percent of the ASMFC allowable catch of 216,000 metric tons.
The company fishes in the Chesapeake Bay as well as in the Atlantic Ocean. In 2016, Omega’s Chesapeake Bay harvest was less than 45,000 metric tons.
The plan, which lowers the Chesapeake Bay harvest cap on menhaden from 87,000 to 51,000 metric tons with no rollover of the unused harvest, is an effort to address concerns of environmentalists and scientists about over-fishing. Menhaden play a critical role as a keystone prey species in Atlantic marine and estuarine systems and the bay is used by the fish as a nursery.
The board said it would wait until August, giving the General Assembly, which oversees state menhaden management and is meeting for a special budget session, “an opportunity to implement the 51,000 mt Bay cap.”
That is unlikely, said one General Assembly observer. Though the General Assembly is in a special budget session, previous bills have been highly controversial and did not pass during the regular session.
“There’s a lot of hostility towards the commission when these bills come up,” said the observer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeapordizing relationships with lawmakers. “The sentiment of some members is that we should be protecting Virginia. It’s not our goal to sacrifice our own fishery.”
Six years ago, ASMFC cut harvests of 212,000 metric tons by 20 percent to prevent overfishing. Omega was forced to lay off workers and decommission a ship.
A few years later, the commission used new scientific models and they showed a healthy menhaden population that was not being overfished. Omega has since added newer, larger, more efficient ships.
In ASMFC’s latest assessment, menhaden stocks remain healthy and not overfished, but there are signs the population capable of reproducing has declined slightly.
The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, whose members include Virginia bait suppliers as well as New England lobstermen, maintain there is “no scientific evidence supporting the idea that the menhaden fishery is taking too many from the Chesapeake Bay.”
The General Assembly resolved going into this special budget session that “no bill, joint resolution, or resolution shall be offered in either house during the Special Session.” But it did leave a small opening: “except with the unanimous consent of the house in which the legislation is offered.”
In a statement, ASMFC said, for now the board is postponing action until its August meeting to give the General Assembly a chance to act.
In the meantime, ASMFC said, the reduction fishery is just beginning for the year and is “highly unlikely” to exceed the Chesapeake Bay cap prior to August, given the reduction fishery for the past five years has been significantly below 51,000 mt. during that period.
If the commission proceeds with a noncompliance finding, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce has 30 days to review the recommendation and determine appropriate action. That may include a federal moratorium on fishing for Atlantic menhaden in Virginia’s state waters.