Photo: Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Va. Lawmakers Give up Control of Menhaden Fishery

Virginia is on its way to being back in compliance with the Chesapeake Bay menhaden harvest cap, as state lawmakers pass legislation to put fisheries management into the hands of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC)–where conservationists and anglers say it should have been all along.

Menhaden, an oily little fish species used in fish oil and fish meal products, is Virginia’s largest fishery. The species is also a key piece of the Chesapeake Bay food chain. Bigger predators like crabs and striped bass (whose population is currently in trouble) rely on the forage fish for food.

Until now, it was the state’s only fishery to be managed by the General Assembly rather than by VMRC. America’s largest fish meal processor, Reedville-based Omega Protein, catches the lion’s share of menhaden commercially harvested in the Bay region.

Last season, Omega announced it caught 30 percent more menhaden than the Atlantic fishery managers’ harvest cap allows. The Atlantic State Marine Fisheries (ASMFC) found Virginia out of compliance with the Bay harvest cap, asking the feds to impose consequences on the state that would directly impact Omega. In December, the U.S. Commerce Department sided with ASMFC, putting a deadline on Virginia to get in compliance by mid-June, or face a menhaden fishing moratorium.

At the same time, many ASMFC board members, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, and recreational fishing and conservation groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership pushed for lawmakers to shift menhaden fishery management to VMRC, where all other marine species n Virginia are managed.

This week the Virginia House and Senate passed bipartisan legislation to do just that, and Governor Northam is expected to quickly sign the bill to make it official.

CBF says the legislation marks a new day for the protection of menhaden. Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore said in a statement:

“Despite broad public support, for more than a decade similar legislation has died in committee. This action sets the course for a more thoughtful and responsive management program that removes politics from fisheries management decisions.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership applauds the move for its implications in recreational fishing. If menhaden cause crabs and rockfish to suffer, the recreational fishing industry also suffers.

“This is a huge step forward for sound fisheries conservation in the Chesapeake. The recreational fishing community thanks the bill sponsors and Governor Northam for their leadership as well as the unfailing support of charter captains, fishing guides and other small businesses who rely on a healthy Chesapeake Bay for their livelihoods,” says President and CEO Whit Fosburgh.

-Meg Walburn Viviano