Photo: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Va. Gov. Northam Calls on Feds to Halt Menhaden Harvest

The governor of Virginia is calling on the U.S. chief of commerce to stop all menhaden fishing in his state, in order to punish fish-oil producer Omega Protein for taking too much menhaden from the Bay.

Governor Ralph Northam sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross three weeks after Atlantic-coast fishery managers voted to find Virginia out of compliance for exceeding the Chesapeake Bay menhaden harvest cap. He says that putting a moratorium on the menhaden fishery is the only way to send a strong enough message to Omega.

Omega Protein admits it exceeded the limit the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) put in place to ensure enough menhaden remain in Bay waters to support the food chain. (Important Bay species like striped bass feed on menhaden.) The company says it tries to harvest most of its menhaden from the open ocean, rather than the Bay, but this season, bad weather forced fishermen inside the mouth of the Bay. As of late October, Omega had taken 65,000 metric tons of menhaden from the Chesapeake.

In his letter, Governor Northam writes, “The data show clearly that the harvest cap of 51,000 metric tons (more than 112 million pounds) for the industrial purse seine fishery in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay has been exceeded.”

The governor points out that ASMFC’s noncompliance vote was unanimous, and even Virginia voted to find itself out of compliance.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has 30 days to decide on any penalties, including a possible federal moratorium on fishing for or possessing menhaden in Virginia waters, and that deadline is almost up.

Governor Northam calls a moratorium “the most appropriate way to bring about a shift to responsible management of menhaden,” saying it would prevent Omega from pushing further past the quota for 2019.

Northam says a moratorium could finally motivate Virginia’s General Assembly (which controls the state menhaden fishery) to make new regulations that will ensure Virginia doesn’t go out of compliance again.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) applauds the governor’s push for a moratorium. In a statement, Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore says:

“Omega Protein took a risky gamble on the future of its workers when the company chose to break harvest limits in the Chesapeake Bay. The Commerce Department must back the ASMFC, as it has in nearly every case in the Commission’s 78-year history.

“Fortunately, Virginia can resolve this before the 2020 menhaden season starts in the spring. In the upcoming General Assembly session legislators should transfer the management of the menhaden fishery to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission like every other saltwater fishery in Virginia. VMRC’s responsibility to ensure sound, science-based management will bring Virginia back into compliance so that fishing can resume as scheduled in the spring.”

Bay Bulletin will continue to follow any decisions made by the Department of Commerce regarding menhaden fishery penalties.

Meg Walburn Viviano