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Virginia strengthens menhaden conservation

Atlantic menhaden caught as part of Maryland's Estuarine Fish Community Sampling Program. Photo: Frank Marenghi, Maryland DNR

Atlantic menhaden caught as part of Maryland's Estuarine Fish Community Sampling Program. Photo: Frank Marenghi, Maryland DNR

Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va., signed a bipartisan bill improving management of Atlantic menhaden, a small fish that many large species rely on for food, following vocal support from recreational anglers.

The legislation transfers management authority of Atlantic menhaden — oily baitfish that feeds sportfish like striped bass — to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the entity that oversees other saltwater fisheries in the state.

As the forage fish gain attention as being critical to the food supply, Canada-based Omega Proteins has come under fire for violating the regional fishery management plan.

Now that the bill has been signed into law, the legislation puts Virginia on a path toward compliance with the regional fishery management plan that Omega Protein violated last year, according to the American Sportfishing Association.

“Thanks to the signature of Gov. Northam, menhaden will now be managed by fisheries experts at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association, in a statement.

“Adequate menhaden populations are key to striped bass and other sportfish that support Virginia’s $583,806,000 saltwater recreational fishing economy,” said Leonard. “This important shift in management authority will help ensure a future of science-based management of menhaden that accounts for their important role in the ecosystem.”

In October, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission menhaden management board unanimously voted to find Virginia’s menhaden reduction fishery out of compliance with the regional fishery management plan. Omega Protein made a commitment to comply with the catch limit of 51,000 metric tons but announced it would exceed that cap last fall.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission later found that Omega Protein had exceeded the Chesapeake Bay reduction fishing cap by 35 million pounds, a ruling upheld by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

Many sportfishing enthusiasts blame menhaden reduction fisheries, in part, for drops in once-abundant species. Omega Protein argues that overfishing has led to declines of striped bass and other populations that feed on menhaden.

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