Anglers, Charter Boat Captains, and Conservation Groups Highlight Urgency of Menhaden Legislation

(RICHMOND, VA)—A coalition of conservation and recreational fishing organizations today urged support for new legislation that would ensure Virginia avoids the consequences of falling out of compliance with the latest menhaden fishery management plan. On behalf of Gov. Ralph Northam, Delegate Barry Knight has introduced a bill that would implement the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden.

“The menhaden management plan is a compromise that maintains Virginia’s robust fisheries while ensuring this critical fish continues to play its key role in the Bay’s food chain,” said Chris Moore, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist. “If this modest bill doesn’t pass, Virginia could be banned from catching menhaden completely. Failure to implement the latest menhaden management plan would also undermine Virginia’s good standing with the ASMFC, which helps manage over 20 other fisheries.” 

Menhaden are a small oily fish that make up the biggest commercial fishery by volume on the Atlantic Coast. More than 70 percent of the Atlantic Coast’s menhaden harvest is caught in Virginia waters by Omega Protein, which was recently purchased by Canada-based Cooke Seafood. Menhaden also play a vital role in the Chesapeake Bay’s food chain, making up an important part of the diet of whales, sea birds, and sport fish such as striped bass.

Last November the ASMFC overwhelmingly adopted updates to a menhaden management plan by a 17 to 1 vote. This plan, known as Amendment 3, was backed by the latest science and took into account input from over 150,000 stakeholders. These updates help protect nursery areas for species such as striped bass and menhaden while ensuring the menhaden’s ecological and economic benefits are distributed equitably among various states and fisheries. Virginia’s General Assembly must now implement these changes in order to avoid the consequences of falling out of compliance with the Interstate Fishery Management Plan.

“As the group that represents recreational anglers and charter boat captains, our businesses depend on menhaden to sustain a healthy population of striped bass, bluefish, and other sport fish,” said John Bello, Chairman of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “Legislators are supporting local businesses when they ensure that Virginia complies with these menhaden fishery regulations.”

Capt. Mike Avery runs Seaduction Charters in Hampton Roads. “Menhaden are extremely important to my business. I have seen declining numbers over the years firsthand while running my charter boat operation in the lower Bay. The larger fish we target such as striped bass and cobia feed on menhaden, so if the menhaden fishery isn’t managed well my business suffers,” said Avery.

The legislation includes several simple modifications to Virginia’s state code that ensure conformity with the ASMFC’s updates. That includes a higher overall quota for Virginia’s Atlantic Coast menhaden catch, as well as a Chesapeake Bay harvest cap at the average level that has been caught in the Bay over the last five years. Implementing this plan would also provide regulatory certainty for fisheries operating in Virginia waters.

The coalition of groups supporting the bill includes the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Friends of the Rappahannock, James River Association, Lynnhaven River NOW, The Nature Conservancy, Virginia League of Conservation Voters, Virginia Conservation Network, Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper, and Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association.

“It’s difficult to overstate the economic or ecological importance of menhaden,” said Nikki Rovner, Associate State Director of The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. “That is why states have to work together to ensure that this fishery is well-managed. If one state refuses to cooperate, the consequences could be devastating not only for the menhaden population, but also for the other 26 nearshore fish species Virginia co-manages with other states through the ASMFC.”

Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said, “A healthy menhaden fishery is the product of a healthy Chesapeake Bay. This is why it’s critical that Virginia comply with the latest menhaden management plan–it’s the right thing to do for the economy and the environment. Our organizations look forward to working with the General Assembly, the Northam Administration, and all stakeholders in order to maintain Virginia’s longstanding cooperative approach to coastal migratory fisheries management.” 

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Editor’s note: Read Gov. Northam's office's press release on the legislation.

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