Following opposition by Virginia’s industrial menhaden fishery, the Commonwealth is facing yet another delay in letting science answer one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most longstanding and controversial questions.
The House of Delegates Studies Subcommittee unanimously pushed consideration of House Bill 19 into next year. HB 19, introduced by Delegate R. Lee Ware, would have funded a robust study of the population of menhaden—the small, silvery fish that’s a crucial part of the larger Chesapeake Bay food web and the target of Omega Protein, one of the largest fisheries on the Atlantic Coast.
The subcommittee’s vote halts progress following months-long, state-directed efforts by a broad group of stakeholders to study the health of one of the Bay’s most essential creatures.
Omega Protein previously backed the development of a scientific framework for a local menhaden population study. But as the 2024 legislative session progressed, the company’s lobbying efforts paved the way for lawmakers to punt funding the study into next year.
Omega Protein, a Canadian company, and their affiliate Ocean Harvesters take tens of thousands of metric tons of menhaden annually from the Chesapeake and Virginia’s ocean waters to grind up for industrial uses in what’s called a reduction fishery.
During last year’s General Assembly session, Omega’s lobbying helped significantly weaken a Senate bill calling for a comprehensive menhaden study. Lawmakers from both parties instead passed legislation charging the Virginia Institute of Marine Science with developing a process to understand the factors that may be impacting the local menhaden population. Omega Protein backed that legislation.
Over the summer, without additional funding, staff from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Virginia Marine Resources Commission gathered a diverse coalition including Omega Protein, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others, that produced nine consensus recommendations on what should be included in a menhaden study.
HB 19 would have funded that research and help resolve pressing questions shared by anglers and scientists: What’s the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden population and how are factors such as climate change and industrial fishing affecting menhaden?
Menhaden serve as a nutrient-rich food for a variety of creatures including osprey, striped bass, and whales.
Anglers, conservationists and scientists have long been concerned that the scale of the fishery concentrated in the Chesapeake Bay could lead to a lack of sufficient menhaden, causing ripple effects throughout the food chain for commercially and recreationally important species such as striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish.
Virginia is the only state along the Atlantic Coast to still allow reduction fishing for menhaden in its waters. All other states have banned the practice.
The Bay’s population has been suffering from low menhaden recruitment for over 20 years, meaning fewer young fish survive to adulthood. In addition, many of the Bay’s historically iconic species are moving northward as the Bay’s waters warm.
Currently, annual limits on menhaden are based on data on the coastwide population, counting fish from New England to the Carolinas. That does not take into account potential concerns many have expressed here in the Chesapeake Bay region. More local data is vitally needed.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Chris Moore issued the following statement.
“This is supremely disappointing.
“In the Virginia Way, representatives from the conservation community, Omega Protein, and VIMS hammered out an agreement last year on how to proceed to develop more science on menhaden in both a timely and cost-effective manner. Omega’s lack of support for funding the study is unfortunately not the Virginia Way.
“The lack of a menhaden study leaves far too many questions unanswered and far too many of the Commonwealth’s resources expended over the last year wasted. The bill simply asks the General Assembly to start the work of funding the consensus- based research recommendations. By opposing funding for these important research questions, Omega Protein once again proves they are not acting in good faith for the Chesapeake Bay, but rather only for their own pockets.
“Decision makers need more data to make science-backed and sound decisions to ensure a robust population of menhaden for generations to come.”