This week, identical bills to better protect the menhaden population in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic coast were unanimously voted out of legislative panels with recommendations for approval in the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate. (Read news reports here and here.)
If ultimately passed and signed into law by the governor as expected, the legislation will bring Virginia into compliance with menhaden conservation measures adopted last month by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The interstate commission concluded that the coast-wide population of menhaden has routinely experienced overfishing, is currently at historic lows, and the annual harvest should be cut 20 percent to begin rebuilding the population.
Virginia is home to the largest menhaden harvest operation, the Omega Protein Corporation, which annually catches thousands of tons of menhaden, vacuuming them from giant nets and bringing them to Reedville, a tiny town on Virginia’s Northern Neck peninsula. There the fish are processed into fish oil and meal for a variety of products. Because Omega Protein accounts for so much of the menhaden harvest, it is critical that the company’s Virginia operation be a part of the conservation effort.
Menhaden also are netted and used by watermen to catch blue crabs in the Bay and lobsters in New England. Between the bait industry and Omega Protein, menhaden provide the basis for hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity in Virginia and beyond. A shutdown of the Virginia fishery would be economically devastating.
But besides being an economic driver, menhaden are also an ecological powerhouse. The small forage fish is an energy-rich food for scores of marine animals, including striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, loons, pelicans, ospreys, eagles, and dolphins. Depressed menhaden numbers affect the health of these species; there already is some evidence the Chesapeake Bay’s striped bass and osprey populations are being hurt by fewer menhaden. The impact extends to important commercial and recreational fisheries that target striped bass and other popular finfish.
So the favorable votes this week in the Virginia legislature, even if only in committees and subcommittees, are important first steps toward ensuring a healthy menhaden population, a healthy marine ecosystem, and a healthy Virginia economy.
The votes also represent a major legislative shift. In recent years, efforts to better manage menhaden have been singularly unsuccessful in Virginia’s General Assembly. Most bills have died before making it out of subcommittee.
“We appreciate that legislators recognize the importance of taking immediate action to protect menhaden and the Virginia fisheries dependent upon them,” says Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Ann Jennings (above left, testifying this week before a House of Delegates subcommittee).
She particularly noted the leadership of Delegates Lee Ware, Barry Knight and Edward Scott, Senator Richard Stuart, and the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell, all of whom either initiated or have helped shepherd the legislation.
“We are hopeful the legislation will gain final approval by the full House and Senate,” Jennings adds.
So should everyone who cares about the Bay and its legendary natural and economic resources.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation