There’s a small, bony and oily fish that swims in the Chesapeake Bay and up and down the Atlantic Coast called the menhaden.
People don’t eat them, so you’re never going to see them in the Reel Report or at a tournament weigh-in.
But don’t let that fool you. Menhaden are one of the most important fish in the ecosystem.
That’s because other fish eat them, most notably striped bass, whose population has taken a nosedive over the past few years. Some believe their downturn could be due to a lack of available food in the Chesapeake Bay, or simply put, not enough menhaden to sustain the juvenile striped bass into adulthood.
Where are all the menhaden going? Almost all of the menhaden harvested in US waters go to reduction plants that make ingredients for fish oil supplements and animal food, including fish food of all things.
The history of the commercial menhaden fishery is a bit complicated.
Once there were commercial operations up and down the east coast. Today, there’s just one industrial purse seine outfit — Omega Protein — headquartered in Houston, Texas with a large fleet based out of Reedville, Virginia that operates both in the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. (In U.S. Gulf waters, a company called Daybrook, which is not affiliated with Omega, harvests menhaden.).
Interestingly, menhaden aren’t managed by the Virginia Marine Resource Commission like every other fish; instead, the Virginia legislature sets the rules for menhaden. We all know politicians make their decisions based on what’s best for their constituents, not what some lobbyists or donors tell them to do.
In 2006, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission set a cap in place, a number based on historical catch data, to ensure there’s enough menhaden left in the water for bigger fish to eat.
Originally, the cap was set at just over 100,000 metric tons, the maximum amount of menhaden Omega Protein could remove from Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.
In 2017, the ASMFC voted to lower the cap to 51,000 metric tons, again based on historical catch data. But the ASMFC doesn’t make Virginia’s regulations for menhaden, Virginia’s General Assembly does that.
The General Assembly declined to enact the change in their 2018 session, and this matter was brought to the ASMFC’s attention.
The ASMFC could have settled the matter at the beginning of 2019 and voted to find Virginia out of compliance to set the ball rolling to deal with this discrepancy. But since Omega Protein hadn’t harvested 51,000 metric tons in recent years, the ASMFC considered any action unnecessary and voted to table the matter indefinitely. Instead, everyone just crossed their fingers and hoped Omega Protein would stay under the 51,000 metric tons cap.
Well, it didn’t quite work out like everyone hoped. In September, Omega Protein announced it would be exceeding the 51,000 metric tons cap.
Bad weather in the Atlantic Ocean coupled with enormous schools of menhaden just inside the Chesapeake Bay was enough to convince Omega Protein that violating the ASMFC’s cap was justified. The amount Omega harvested, they argued, was well within the legal limits set by Virginia’s law.
Or was it? Groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland, the American Sportfishing Association, The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation started up a rallying cry to hold Virginia accountable for not enforcing the ASMFC’s cap.
If Virginia was found out of compliance, the U.S. Department of Commerce could put an immediate moratorium on the menhaden fishery.
Last month, the ASMFC convened for their annual meeting in New Castle, New Hampshire where commission voted unanimously to find Virginia out of compliance. The decision was forwarded to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Then, in an unprecedented move, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, announced in a letter that he was imposing a moratorium on Virginia’s menhaden fishery, ahead of the Secretary of Commerce’s decision.
By the way, perhaps the most important piece of the story is that Omega Protein was sold to a Canadian company for $500 at the end of 2017.
Gov. Northam referenced this fact. “Given these actions by an international company, imposing a moratorium on the menhaden harvest is the most appropriate way to bring about a shift to the responsible management of menhaden,” he wrote in his letter dated Nov. 20.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore issued the following statement: “Virginia can resolve this before the 2020 menhaden season starts in the spring. In the upcoming General Assembly session, legislators should transfer the management of the menhaden fishery to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission like every other saltwater fishery in Virginia.”
Gov. Northam has requested a meeting between Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to discuss the “commonwealth’s support for the ASMFC non-compliance finding, as well as our interest in the conservation of Atlantic menhaden.”
Of course the General Assembly can just vote to enact the 51,000 metric tons cap, but wouldn’t it be swell if they do right by menhaden and let the VMRC manage this fishery? They are the experts, after all.