Virginia moves to strengthen conservation of critical forage fish

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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

The Virginia General Assembly this week passed a bill with strong bipartisan support that steps up conservation of a critical forage fish that many gamefish species rely on to survive.

As menhaden get more public attention, more have criticized Canada-based Omega Protein, a company that harvests the forage fish for pet food and fish oil supplements.

The bill transfers management authority of Atlantic menhaden to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which oversees every other saltwater fishery in the Commonwealth. It now heads to Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va.

Once signed into law, the legislation puts Virginia on a path toward compliance with the regional fishery management plan, which Omega Protein violated last year.

“With this landmark decision, the Virginia General Assembly has acknowledged the critical role that recreational fishing plays in the Virginia economy and the need for science and not politics to guide management,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in a statement.

Menhaden are critical to such species as striped bass, bluefin tuna, bluefish, weakfish, tarpon, summer flounder and sharks.

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.

“For too long, Omega has exploited Chesapeake Bay at the expense of recreational anglers,” Fosburgh said. “This is a huge step forward for sound fisheries conservation in the Chesapeake.”

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