An important Menhaden Bill died in the House of Delegates — but with a promise by some proponents and stern opponents to work together to push for permission to catch more.
In yet another flip flop, the bill was backed by the Northam Administration, confirming how much the tail is wagging the dog in Richmond.
The bill was an effort to deal with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s sharp, 41.5 percent cut in a Chesapeake Bay quota for menhaden. Studies and actual science have confirmed that Mendaden, especially under Northam, has been severely over-fished (although this has really been happening for many years).
The Northam administration, tucked firmly in the pocket of Omega Protein, the owner of the Reedville plant that processes menhaden from the bay, agreed to stop fighting over the bill and work together to convince the Marine Fisheries Commission to increase the quota.
The regional commission last year approved a more than 36,000-metric-ton cut in bay quota for menhaden caught by drawing huge “seine” nets around schools of the fish and then hauling them up onto so-called “purse seine” fishing vessels.
Currently, the old marine fisheries commission quota of 87,216 metric tons for fish caught is written into state law.
The administration proposed removing the reference in state law to the 87,216 tons and empowering the head of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to set a new quota after appealing, and hopefully winning, an increased quota from the regional body.
Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler had argued that keeping the old quota in the Code of Virginia risked sanctions that could include an outright ban on menhaden fishing in the bay
.Environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, League of Conservation Voters and Nature Conservancy, as well as sports fishermen — argued that the lower quota was necessary. Too many young menhaden are caught in the bay, a key nursery area for the migratory fish. This could put the menhaden population at risk, as well other species, including striped bass and ospreys.
Several years of decline in the numbers of juvenile menhaden swimming into the bay and concerns about the health of striped bass populations justified the quota cut, they argue.
“We’re obviously disappointed … this was good fisheries management to protect a shared resource. The fact that one company decided they didn’t want to go along really puts Virginia in a bad spot.” – Chris Moore, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Omega vice president for operations Monty Deihl had argued that the quota cut was not based on science and had the effect of letting other states harvest more menhaden while Virginians’ catch was cut. He said total stocks of menhaden, a migratory species, are healthy, which suggests the bay nursery is not being harmed.
Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, whose district includes Reedville and who opposed the bill, said she felt it sent a bad signal about the state’s willingness to push the the regional commission for a higher quota. She said Virginia had been out of compliance with regional commission quotas in the past but was able to resolve disagreements without sanctions, while protecting both employment and stocks of fish.
Omega’s plant processes menhaden into fish oil used as a food supplement, as well as for pet food and fertilizer.
The fishery, the largest in the state, is the only one directly regulated by the legislature.