RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia lawmakers have deferred a crucial decision regarding the conduct of a study on the status of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay until the next legislative session.
The House Rules Committee, in a session on Monday, postponed the consideration of the bill put forth by Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, until the 2025 session. The proposed legislation aimed to mandate the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences to undertake a comprehensive three-year study on the issue, which has been a subject of intense debate in Virginia. This decision follows a summer workgroup’s effort to outline a framework for the research.
Expressing disappointment over the delay, Del. Lee Ware stated, “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. This is carrying forward that study on just a critically important resource in the Bay.”
When questioned about the decision, committee Chair Luke Torian, D-Prince William, responded briefly, saying, “I did what I was told to do.”
Menhaden, tiny nutrient-rich fish, serve as a crucial component of the ecosystem, acting as forage for striped bass and osprey, and are also harvested for reduction into fishmeal and fish oil. Omega Protein, the sole operator in the Chesapeake Bay reduction fishery based in Reedville, has been a significant political player in Richmond.
In 2020, amid a federal threat to shut down the fishery, the General Assembly transferred oversight of menhaden from the legislature to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. However, conflicts persist, with some environmental and recreational fishing groups contending that Omega is depleting the menhaden population in the Bay, thereby affecting species like striped bass.
In 2023, 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. Although a workgroup was formed to determine the study’s parameters, lawmakers have now paused the initiative.
A spokesperson from VIMS emphasized the importance of the proposed study, stating, “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.”
Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, expressed disappointment, calling it “another sad day for the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia’s 320,000 saltwater anglers.”
Despite accusations from some groups that Omega lobbied against the study proposal, a company spokesperson clarified that Omega had taken no stance on the bill. However, the company expressed concerns about the study’s ability to address crucial questions about the menhaden population in the Bay.
Apart from the menhaden study bill, two other bills related to Omega’s operations will be addressed in the current legislative session. Dels. Hillary Pugh Kent, R-Richmond County, and Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack, have introduced legislation aimed at increasing penalties for those who threaten or damage commercial fishing vessels, following reports of interference by the company.