RICHMOND — A Chesapeake Bay advocate says the General Assembly’s failure to place a cap on Virginia’s lucrative menhaden catch leaves unanswered questions about key elements of the region’s ecology.
Menhaden are a small fish harvested mostly for the production of oil and fish meal, but they also play a role in the ecosystem as food for other species like striped bass and osprey. Virginia harvests the majority of menhaden on the Atlantic Coast, accounting for 80 percent of the total harvest according to the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission.
About 70 percent of that 80 percent is harvested by Omega Protein, a company based in Reedville since the early 20th century.
Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, tried twice during the 2018 legislative session to reduce the menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay from its current limit of 87,216 metric tons.
Initially, Knight introduced HB 822, which proposed a limit of 51,000 tons. But that bill died in the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 13.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration then asked that the issue be reconsidered. So Knight introduced HB 1610, which also sought to cap the menhaden harvest in the bay at 51,000 metric tons but also increase an allowable total of the fish caught in the Atlantic by 2,000 tons.
“I personally view this as a little bit more friendly to the industry to mitigate some of their concerns,” Knight said.
On Feb. 28, the committee voted 11-10 in favor of HB 1610, clearing it for a vote by the full House. However, on Tuesday, the bill was sent back to the committee, effectively killing it for the session.
The bill would bring Virginia within limits set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commissions, a compact of 15 coastal states that agree to protect and better utilizing fisheries.
Ben Landry, Omega Protein’s public affairs director, said the company opposes the commission’s limits. He said the caps advocated by the organization and Knight’s legislation unfairly targeted the company without scientific evidence.
“We have been in business for a long time, and we think that we should be fighting against the ASMFC cooperatively,” Landry said. “Virginia was targeted and disadvantaged by this, and we shouldn’t have to take it.”
Landry was referring to the commission increasing its total quota for fishing menhaden by 8 percent in November but cutting Virginia’s allocation of the total harvest.
Environmental groups including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation considered the legislation as a way of protecting menhaden. Reducing the cap by 36,000 metric tons would have had little effect on Omega Protein, said Chris Moore, a senior scientist for the foundation.
Even with the limit, Moore said, the company “would actually be able to catch a little bit more than their average for the last five years” in the Chesapeake Bay.
Landry said setting the cap based on the company’s current average yield of menhaden is shortsighted. He said Omega Protein pulled 109,000 metric tons in 2006.
Moore said the impact of the menhaden fishery is wide-ranging and ultimately affects many businesses and communities that depend on the bay in different ways. Moore said, for example, that certain studies have indicated that striped bass had been in danger of starving without a healthy menhaden population, which also provides food for flounder and bluefish.