VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – The Virginia Marine Resources Commission rejected new menhaden fishery limits, instead proposing a memorandum of understanding between the menhaden harvesting industry and the commission.

The commission’s original staff proposal would have banned harvesting menhaden by purse seine – a large wall of netting used around an entire area or school of fish – within a mile of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Virginia Beach, and one-half mile of either side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

The proposal would have also prohibited purse seine fishing for menhaden on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, as well as July 1-7.

Omega Protein is the primary harvester of menhaden in the region using purse seines. The commission said spills sometimes happen when those nets snag, tear or malfunction, which it said sends dead fish, primarily menhaden, into the water and sometimes onto nearby shorelines and beaches.

The company had taken responsibility for some of the rotted fish that washed up on Eastern Shore beaches July 5. It admitted that one of its menhaden boats had a net tear, but said it was not operating its boats July 2-4 and did not take responsibility for any fish washing ashore prior to the reported July 5 spill.

The commission said several net spills by Omega Protein earlier this year resulted in thousands of dead menhaden and about 12,000 pounds of red drum fouling beaches on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The commission said net spills before busy holiday weekends have hurt the tourism economy in Coastal Virginia communities.   

“This was a missed opportunity to better manage Virginia’s menhaden purse seine fisheries while working to reduce the damage caused by menhaden net spills,” said Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The proposals developed by VMRC staff were an appropriate step in addressing the numerous concerns citizens from throughout the Commonwealth have about Virginia’s menhaden fishery.

“Moving fishing into deeper water where nets are less likely to snag could reduce the frequency of Omega Protein’s net spills, which are an alarming waste of a precious food source for striped bass, dolphins, osprey and other wildlife.”

Moore said it would continue to advocate for protecting the ecological value of the state’s menhaden population, and also advocate for “commonsense solutions that reduce conflicts between Omega Protein’s fishing fleet and anglers, boaters, beachgoers and Virginia’s tourism economy.”

The company in November said it supported the 20% menhaden quota increase to 233,550 metric tons that was adopted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.