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Virginia's menhaden tug-of-war may end in the General Assembly

Virginia's menhaden tug-of-war may end in the General Assembly

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REEDVILLE—After 30 days of hand-wringing by fisheries managers and Virginia’s largest menhaden fishing fleet, the U.S. Department of Commerce recently handed the Commonwealth of Virginia a decision that read more like an ultimatum: Adopt a two-year-old Chesapeake Bay reduction fishery limit or be forced to stop fishing for menhaden in state waters.

It was a long wait for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which had cut the state slack last year when the General Assembly didn’t adopt a 2017 Bay cap. When Reedville-based Omega Protein Inc. went over that cap this past summer, the commissioners felt they were left with no other alternative but to find the state out of compliance with their fishery plan and ask for a ruling by the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

The limit on taking menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay “is necessary for the conservation of the menhaden resource,” said Chris Oliver, Commerce’s assistant administrator for fisheries in a letter to Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission.

In the upcoming General Assembly session, legislators will have a choice—adopt the 2017 cap in the Bay of 51,000 metric tons or deal with a moratorium on fishing, possession and landing of Atlantic menhaden if harvested in state waters beginning June 17, 2020.

A moratorium would not only affect Omega, but the smaller companies that fish for menhaden to sell as bait, including the small operations of fishermen whose nets dot the coasts of the Bay.

Commission members from Maine to Florida who oversee the protection of key marine species consider the Bay a nursery for menhaden and other species that rely on the fish as prey. Steve Bowman, Virginia’s commissioner and chief of the Virginia Resources Management Commission, and Gov. Ralph Northam agreed.

Northam joined eight other governors of coastal states in a letter to Secretary Ross, asking Ross to find Virginia out of compliance with the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden.

“The best available information shows that menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay are an important component of overall health of the stock” up and down the Atlantic Coast, Oliver said.

He, too, noted the importance of the fish as food for other species in the Bay, calling menhaden “critical to the marine environment.”

The decision comes after Omega, a fish-rendering company owned by Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture Inc., made a choice not to comply with the 51,000-metric-ton cap enacted by the ASMFC earlier this year. Omega based that decision on two things—bad weather that kept its ships and menhaden in the Bay for several days and the fact that the state had never adopted the cap.

So the company announced to ASMFC and VMRC it would adhere to the older Bay limit of 87,000 metric tons, thereby exceeding the new one.

“In the last decade, we have made a concerted effort to fish outside the Bay whenever weather conditions and the location of fish has made that possible,” Omega operations chief Monty Deihl said at the time.

Commissioners had postponed action against Virginia last year when legislators did not adopt the new menhaden limits in the Bay. For decades, various General Assembly members, including then-Sen. Ralph Northam, have tried to pry menhaden oversight from the legislature and give it to VMRC, which oversees all other marine species.

The Division of Legislative Services traced that oversight back to 1967. Librarian Paul Birch of University of Richmond said he believes the General Assembly never gave away their oversight of menhaden.

Commissioners warned the state of a looming enforcement action, but some in the General Assembly saw it as sacrificing Virginia’s fishing industry.

And so, the line was drawn.

“Coast-wide there’s no debate that overall the population is doing well and that’s important,” ASMFC Executive Director Robert Beal said in an interview after the Commerce finding. “There’s a lot of uncertainty relative to the Chesapeake Bay: What’s the right level to be harvested?”

ASMFC used the average reduction harvest from the Chesapeake Bay between 2012 and 2016 to set the 2017 bay cap.

Omega has always held that there is no scientific basis for the new cap, often referring to harvest limits as “arbitrary.” The company harvests mature menhaden that weigh about a pound and can grow to a maximum length of about 15 inches.

In 2018, Omega harvested approximately 141,000 metric tons or roughly 93 percent of the coast-wide cap for the entire industry and did not exceed the 51,000-metric-ton cap. It produced 8,000 metric tons of fish oil and 46,000 metric tons of fish meal.

“I think what they are saying is there’s no model that produces an estimate of what the right level of harvest is,” said Beal. “The managers say that since we don’t have that model, what we should do is be precautionary ... while we work on ecological reference points.”

That new scientific model has already undergone peer review and will be used to manage the entire ecosystem. It considers other marine species and birds that rely on menhaden in their diet, such as dolphin, osprey and striped bass, a fish now in a decline partly linked to poor diet. The reports will be presented at the February meeting in Virginia and open to public comment.

“The transition to ecosystem management will be really important for the future of the menhaden management at the commission,” said Beal.

In a press release, Omega said it will work with both the ASMFC and the Commonwealth of Virginia to lift the moratorium and bring the fishery back into compliance.

“The Company looks forward to working with the Commission in the coming months as we move toward ecosystem-based measures, and will continue to support science-based fishery management and a healthy menhaden fishery,” the release said.

A spokesman for Cooke Aquaculture had no additional comment.

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