A letter dated June 14 and signed by 21 groups of anglers and conservationists was sent to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin asking him to close a significant portion of the Chesapeake Bay menhaden commercial fishing. The groups want the commercial fishery for menhad to be closed until “science shows” that such nets will not harm the bay’s ecosystem.
According to a report from Virginia Mercuryincludes the groups that sign the letter, the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and 19 other organizations concerned about Chesapeake Bay’s health.
“By removing more than 100 million pounds of menhad each year from Chesapeake Bay, the main striped bass nursery on the East Coast, undermining reduction fishing (after menhad) in Virginia’s sport fishing economy and small businesses throughout the Commonwealth,” states Virginia, according to Virginia Mercury.
Commercial fishing for menhad – commonly known as pogeys or piles – has been controversial in the bay and in many other coastal regions, where the small marine baitfish is caught and used for oil and ground into fishmeal.
Menhaden is also a very important food fish for a multitude of coastal and coastal species, with striped bass, bluefish and weak fish being the main predators of piles in the Chesapeake Bay. In other regions, species such as tarpon, king mackerel, cobia, sailfish, sharks, sea trout, redfish and snook settle on the menhad as important food fish for their survival.
Menhaden’s commercial fishing is well organized, with spotter planes used in some regions. This is mainly done with large purse seine mother ships with smaller boats working the nets from the larger boat, which then sucks up baitfish with giant vacuum-like hoses when a seine is pulled close. The menhade is stored on board the mother ship for later delivery to processing plants.
Omega protein is a company in Reedville, Va., which is the largest commercial harvester of menhad in the Chesapeake Bay. Omega considers the letter to Youngkin “creepy and dramatic.”
“It’s just frankly not based on any real science (the letter),” Virginia Mercury omega spokesman Ben Landry was quoted as saying. “It’s mostly opinions, and this hope or belief that future science will indicate that menhad is a problem for striped bass, but it really ignores that striped bass is dramatically overfished.”
Omega’s Reedville plant employs over 250 people and captures the vast majority of the commercial catch of menhad in Chesapeake. Omega’s Chesapeake Bay menhaden quota is 56,000 tons. Landry says Omega’s coastal harvest of pogies is about 150,000 tons.
In 2020, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) began to manage menhad differently to calculate pogie quotas. ASMFC now takes into account how a species fits into the larger ecosystem, rather than just abundance and harvest data for a species.
Omega believes the commercial harvest of the menhad is fully sustainable and notes an ASMFC report from 2020 that says the bunker “is not overfished or experiencing overfishing.”
Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association president Steve Atkinson said the study that resulted in the ASMFC report did not adequately consider local reductions in menhad in the Chesapeake Bay.
“Until science can prove that this menhaden reduction fishery is not causing harm, we believe caution is absolutely necessary here,” Atkinson said, according to Virginia Mercury.
“The striped bass fishery is the largest oat recreational fishery in the United States, operating $ 166 million in recreational fishing in Virginia alone,” conservation groups wrote in their letter to Youngkin. “But the economic value of striped bass fishing for Virginia has fallen by more than 50 percent in the past decade.”
Omega claims that a reduction in commercial harvest of menhad in the Chesapeake Bay will not improve the striped bass stock. Landry also says the company’s Reedville plant would shut down if it could not harvest the menhade from the bay.
A spokesman for Youngkin said the governor and Virginia Marine Resources Commission are meeting with the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association and other groups to consider their concerns about purse seines in the Chesapeake Bay.