Clarkson: Menhaden discussion likely not going away anytime soon

Last year, Omega’s menhaden quota was set at 144,000 metric tons, roughly 50,000 metric tons of which were caught in the Chesapeake Bay.

In this week’s General Assembly update, I want to point to several bills that certainly will be of importance to sportsmen and women as well as anyone concerned with the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Delegate Barry Knight and Sen. John Cosgrove have introduced HB150 and SB 98 respectively, which would transfer the management of the menhaden fishery to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). The VMRC manages every other saltwater fishery in the state except menhaden, which is managed by the General Assembly.

This is not the first time this proposal has come before the General Assembly. Bills dating to 1995 have sought to shift the management of the fishery away from the General Assembly, according to Chris Moore, Virginia Senior Scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Menhaden play a key role in the health of the Chesapeake Bay, feeding on plankton and serving as forage for fish, birds, crabs and other marine animals.

Additionally, they provide hundreds of jobs in Virginia and Maryland.

There has been much discussion and concern through the years regarding the fishing practices of Omega Protein, a Texas-owned company that operates a menhaden reduction plant in Reedville.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is in favor of the bills to transfer management of the fishery to VMRC.

Moore doesn’t necessarily anticipate major changes with a switch to the VMRC, but points to the fact the VMRC can focus attention on the fishery throughout the year, which the General Assembly cannot.

“Things happen throughout the year that can be dealt with more efficiently by VMRC,” Moore said, noting this year marks, by far, the largest group of legislators in support of the bills to transfer management of the fishery.

Omega Protein is opposed to transferring the management of the fishery from the General Assembly to VMRC.

“There is a greater risk of mismanagement with the smaller body at VMRC,” said Ben Landry, director of public affairs at Omega Protein.

The company released a statement citing, “Any attempts at this transfer are not made as a means of conservation, but rather as a politically motivated move to negatively impact the menhaden fishery, a centuries old business in the Commonwealth.”

Conflicts were widely reported between Omega Protein’s reduction boats and recreational anglers as well as beach-goers last summer.

HB 151, also introduced by Knight, seeks to reduce these conflicts by prohibiting menhaden fishing within 3 miles of the coast in the ocean and 1 mile of the coast in the Chesapeake Bay.

Omega operates a fleet of eight boats out of its Reedville location. The boats follow the fish from New Jersey to North Carolina, but spend the majority of their time fishing the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and off the coast of Virginia.

Two smaller purse-seine boats will trap the fish in a net while the “carry” vessel comes alongside and sucks them out of the net, over a grate of metal bars and into the fish hold. The excess water that is vacuumed up with the fish, often referred to as slurry, is then released from the boat containing “fish slime, blood, mud, and organic matter,” according to Omega.

There is concern in the beach region that the slurry, which has a rather pungent odor, can wash up on the beaches, having a negative impact on tourism.

Recreational anglers came into conflict with the Omega boats last year, which prompted a gentleman’s agreement in which Omega Protein agreed not to fish within 3 miles of the beach between Cape Henry and Sandbridge from Memorial Day through Labor Day, an agreement they say they honored and would honor in the future. The agreement did not include any restrictions on fishing within the Chesapeake Bay.

HB 151 would make that agreement law, and would further extend restrictions into the bay.

Last year, Omega’s menhaden quota was set at 144,000 metric tons, roughly 50,000 metric tons of which were caught in the Chesapeake Bay.

“We believe that placing arbitrary geographic restraints on where fish can be caught is unnecessary and has no basis in science or fisheries management best practices,” Omega said in a statement.

Regardless of whether the bills pass this year, the menhaden discussion isn’t likely to go away any time soon, particularly among anglers who are overwhelmingly in favor of changes to protect the important forage fish.

Votes on HB 150 and SB 98 and HB 151 are slotted to take place in their respective sub-committees this week.