Recreational fishers call on Youngkin to shut down Chesapeake Bay menhaden fishery
A coalition of recreational fishing and conservation groups is calling on Governor Glenn Youngkin to shut down much of the Chesapeake Bay menhaden fishery ‘until science demonstrates’ that it will not negatively affect the estuary ecosystem.
In a June 14 letter21 groups, including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, said harvesting menhaden to be ground for use in fishmeal and fish oil — known as reduction fishing — endangers striped bass populations along the east coast.
“By removing more than 100 million pounds of menhaden each year from the Chesapeake Bay, the largest striped bass nursery on the East Coast, the reduced fishery in Virginia is undermining the sport fishing economy and small businesses throughout the Commonwealth,” they wrote.
But Omega Protein, the Reedville, Va.-based company that’s the biggest player in reduction fishing, called the request a “glaring and dramatic request.”
“It’s frankly not based on real science,” said Ben Landry, spokesman for Omega. “These are just opinions and this hope or belief that future science will indicate that menhaden is a problem for striped bass, but it really ignores that striped bass are significantly overfished.”
Feuds over Omega and the small bony fish known as the menhaden have long been a fixture of Virginia politics.
The company operates the East Coast’s only reduction facility at Reedville, employing about 260 people, and takes about three-quarters of all menhaden caught coastwide. He has also long wielded significant political influence in Richmond. Until 2020, when its management was transferred to the Virginia Marine Resources Commissionthe menhaden fishery was the only fishery in Virginia to be managed directly by the General Assembly.
The transfer follows a federal threat to stop all captures after Omega exceeded Chesapeake Bay menhaden harvest quotaa limit imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages fisheries resources in state waters along the eastern seaboard.
Currently, Omega’s quota in the Chesapeake Bay is 51,000 metric tons of menhaden. According to Landry, his coast-wide harvest is about 136,000 metric tons.
From 2020, the ASMFC also began to manage menhaden differently, using an “ecological benchmark” to calculate quotas. This approach considers the role a species plays in the larger ecosystem rather than relying solely on data such as abundance and mortality rate.
Omega has insisted that its harvest of menhaden is sustainable, pointing out that a February 2020 stock assessment by ASMFC found that the species “is not overfished or experiencing overfishing”.
Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, acknowledged that the ASMFC’s latest stock assessment found menhaden were not overfished, but said the study took a scale view of the coast and had failed to capture “localized exhaustion” in the Chesapeake Bay.
It’s particularly concerning because of the bay’s role as a nursery for many marine species like striped bass, bluefish and acoupa that depend on the menhaden for food, he said.
“Until science can prove that this menhaden reduction fishery is not causing harm, we believe caution is in order here,” he said.
In their letter to Youngkin, recreational fishing and conservation groups argue that the economic impacts of menhaden depletion are already being felt.
“The striped bass fishery is the largest marine recreational fishery in the United States, generating $166 million in recreational fishing activity in Virginia alone,” they wrote. “However, the economic value of striped bass fishing in Virginia has declined by more than 50% over the past decade.”
Landry disputed the idea that halting the harvest of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay would help restore the East Coast striped bass population, arguing that the reduction in landings for decades was “orders of magnitude” greater. higher than current quotas and that recreational fishers have overfished striped bass.
Closing the Chesapeake Bay fishery would also have serious economic repercussions, he said.
“If we couldn’t fish in the bay, we would close (the Reedville plant),” he said. “We couldn’t make up the fish catch lost in the bay off the ocean. There are too many factors that come into play, the most important of which is the weather.
Macaulay Porter, spokesman for Youngkin, said the administration and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission “are in regular communication and have met several times with the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association and other stakeholders, including other signatories. of the letter on these matters”.