Company violated fishing rules but not state law with Menhaden catch in Chesapeake Bay

Menhaden fishermen_696919

Menhaden fishermen on Tangier Island.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Gov. Ralph Northam is calling for a moratorium for a company accused of overfishing Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay this year.

Omega Protein Corporation is a Canadian-owned reduction fishery that fishes Menhaden in the Atlantic Ocean and uses them to create fish oil, fish meal, and other products.

Menhaden is an oil-rich species often eaten by striped bass, flounder, marine mammals, and sea birds. It is an important part of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

About 70% of Menhaden caught by Omega Protein Corporation comes from the Mid-Atlantic Region every year. Nearly half the Menhaden caught by Omega Protein Corporation in 2019 were fished from the Chesapeake Bay, said corporation spokesman Ben Landry.

Landry said although the Menhaden were caught in the Chesapeake Bay, they are a migratory species that swim to many different areas of the Atlantic Coast, including North Carolina, Florida and Maine.

“There’s no such thing as a Bay population,” Landry said.

Omega Protein Corporation caught about 67,000 metric tons of Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay in 2019. Landry said that in previous years, Menhaden were found abundantly in the Atlantic Ocean off the Virginia coast, but this year the populations were more prevalent in the Chesapeake Bay.

According to General Assembly law, the 67,000 metric tons of Menhaden caught in the Chesapeake Bay by Omega Protein Corporation in 2019 is within the legal limits of 87,000 metric tons allowed to be caught in Virginia; however, Virginia’s legal limits exceed a fisheries management rule put into place in 2017 by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. That rule caps the number of Menhaden fished from the Chesapeake Bay at 51,000 metric tons.

The Virginia General Assembly has control over the catch limits for Menhaden. In 2018 and 2019, the Virginia General Assembly did not adopt new legislation that would bring the law in line with the regulation set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Related Coverage: Omega Protein challenging menhaden catch limits on Chesapeake Bay

Gov. Northam wrote a letter on Wednesday to the United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. In the letter, Northam condemned Omega Protein Corporation for exceeding the 51,000 metric ton cap for fishing Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay. Northam called for a moratorium of the company’s operations in the Chesapeake Bay.

“A moratorium will also provide the motivation necessary to ensure that Virginia’s General Assembly puts in place new measures to ensure future compliance with ASMFC fisher management plans, which are a shining example of the kind of cooperative federalism your Administration supports.”

Gov. Ralph Northam

Landry called Northam’s letter “aggressive” and said that the corporation did not break Virginia law. He also added that the corporation doesn’t seek to routinely exceed the cap put in place by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, but that it needs flexibility depending on where the Menhaden fish population are from year to year.

Although Omega Protein Corporation did not break Virginia law, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission did find that the company violated their fisheries management rule. The commission has notified the United States Department of Commerce of the violation. Ross will ultimately decide if the corporation is out of compliance with fishing regulations and if there will be any penalties, according to a news release from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“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,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore wrote in a statement.

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