Photo; Will Parson

Historic Vote on Menhaden Brings Va. into Compliance

After a tumultuous few years for menhaden management in Virginia, the state will avoid a moratorium on all menhaden fishing as it finally comes into compliance with the East Coast states’ fishery management plan.

On Tuesday morning, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC)’s members voted unanimously to take over management authority for Atlantic menhaden from the General Assembly per legislation passed in February. 

The vote brings the Commonwealth into compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC)’s fishery management plan for this forage species, which forms a vital link in the food webs of the entire Atlantic coast.  It avoids a federal moratorium on all of Virginia’s menhaden fisheries that would have taken effect June 17, 2020.  Before the February vote, menhaden had been the only marine fishery managed by the General Assembly instead of VMRC.

Last year, ASMFC found Virginia out of compliance after Omega Protein, the nation’s biggest fish meal processor, exceeded fishery managers’ Bay harvest cap. To get the state back in compliance, Omega’s 2020 Bay cap has been cut by the amount the company’s boats went over the limit last year.

The crews aboard Omega Protein’s “reduction fleet” of nine large purse seine vessels based in Reedville will begin fishing as usual on the first Monday in May (the 4th) with the tight new limits.

In a statement released to Bay Bulletin, a company spokesman says, “Omega Protein is supportive of the VMRC’s decision yesterday and we are hopeful that the Commission will make future decisions based upon the best available science, not politics.”

Meanwhile, other watermen catching menhaden in the Bay will continue supplying bait to Virginia’s many crabbers, charter skippers, and private recreational anglers.  All will fish under the tight total allowable catch management plan established by Virginia and the other Atlantic states within the ASMFC to ensure that enough menhaden stay in the water to feed fish (from rockfish to Bluefin tuna), birds (from ospreys to loons), and even marine mammals (from river otters to whales), with more left over to propagate the species.

“Today’s vote finally brings management of these critical links in the Chesapeake/Atlantic ecosystem into the Virginia state agency best equipped to ensure that the Bay remains the most important nursery on the coast for these invaluable fish,” said Bill Goldsborough, retired Senior Fishery Scientist from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who participated actively in menhaden management for more than twenty-five years.  “This is an historic moment.”   

-John Page Williams