Feds threaten to close fishery
Officials say company must comply with menhaden quotas
The nation’s commerce secretary said he will shut down the Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden fishery if the company that accounts for the vast majority of the catch doesn’t comply with federal quotas by June 17.
Federal fisheries managers recently ruled Virginia “out of compliance” for allowing the company, Omega Protein Corp., to surpass the bay quota.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross issued a statement Thursday that the Canadian-owned company “willfully violated the fishing cap on menhaden inside the Chesapeake Bay, continuing to fish after the federally-ordered quota of 51,000 tons had been met.”
Conservationists cheered the enforcement news.
“There have been conservationists, conservation organizations and anglers working on this for more than 20 years in an effort to protect the fishery,” said Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “This is the largest conservation victory in that effort.”
Menhaden are a small, oily fish that Omega uses to make pet food, human supplements and to feed farm-raised salmon. The fish are filter feeders that help clean the bay and are an important species at the bottom of the food chain, providing forage for striped bass and other large fish.
Though there is no industrialscale menhaden fishery in Maryland, the fish caught in Virginia are still a food source for striped bass and other migratory fish that spend much of the year in Maryland waters.
The pending shutdown follows a letter to Ross by the governors of nine states from Virginia to Maine — including Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — urging the secretary to find the commonwealth out of compliance and to threaten to shut down the fishery.
The administration of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is urging that state’s legislature to step in. Menhaden are the only saltwater fish in Virginia waters governed by the state’s General Assembly instead of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
“We thank Secretary Ross … for taking this opportunity to protect the Chesapeake Bay and the livelihoods of all those who depend on it, including the workers at Omega Protein,” said Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Matthew J. Strickler. “We believe strongly that a science-based approach that accounts for all fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem is appropriate, and we look forward to working with the General Assembly to apply such an approach to the menhaden fishery.”
Omega this year caught more than 35 million pounds over the bay quota, citing several reasons for its continued harvest, including that state legislators never adopted the federal quota.
The company even publicly declared that it would fish beyond the federally-mandated limit. Omega long has complained that quotas aren’t based on science.
“Omega Protein is disappointed in today’s decision by the Secretary of Commerce to impose a moratorium on Virginia’s menhaden fishery,” the company said in a statement. “This is the first time that a moratorium has been placed on a fishery that is not overfished and is healthy by every measure.”
Omega did not say whether it now will begin complying with the quota.
Recreational anglers cheered the commerce department’s decision.
“It’s nice to finally get some recognition for the issue and to see something get done to punish the company,” said Steve Epstein, a fisherman and conservation activist. “We hope the bay cap can be honored in the future,” he said. “This is going to entirely change the way the company does business.”