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Menhaden Now in the Virginia Hopper

Menhaden photo
The oldest continuous legislature in the New World will now grapple with the most important fish in the sea.

The Virginia General Assembly (c. 1619) convened this week to begin the 2013 legislative session, and among the first bills dropped in the hopper for consideration was a measure to bring Virginia into compliance with a coast-wide plan that better protects Atlantic menhaden, a little fish with big ecological and economic roles.

The legislation, House Bill 1840, was introduced by Delegate Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, and is aimed at DSC_0002ensuring Virginia is in sync with the menhaden management plan adopted last month by the Atlantic Coast Marine Fisheries Commission. Recognizing that the coast-wide population of menhaden was in trouble – down to 8 percent of unfished levels, a record low – the commission took historic action to rescue the tiny fish, calling upon East Coast states to reduce the annual harvest of menhaden by 20 percent.

The Virginia legislation will do that, putting into law:

• A Virginia total allowable catch of approximately 145,273 metric tons.
• A 20 percent reduction in the current Chesapeake Bay harvest cap to 87,216 metric tons.
• Measures to ensure Virginia can increase its allowable catch through quota transfers from other states, if they become available.
• A deadline of September 1, 2013, for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to develop new reporting procedures for Virginia’s menhaden fisheries, develop biological sampling programs, and allocate a portion of the harvest to Virginia’s various bait fisheries.

“It is critical that Virginia act to bring the state into compliance with the management plan,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Executive Director Ann Jennings says of the legislation. “Failure to Menhaden do so invites federal sanctions that could close the entire menhaden fishery in Virginia, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of hardworking Virginians.”

First consideration of House Bill 1840 could come as early as next Thursday (Jan. 17) before a House of Delegates subcommittee. If you’re a Virginian and care about protecting this important fish, let your legislators know you want them to approve the bill.

Why all the fuss about menhaden? Menhaden are oily, bony, herring-like fish that form large schools. They’re normally found in the Chesapeake Bay from spring to fall. They have been called “the most important fish in the sea” because of their key ecological roles as both filter feeders and primary food sources for many Bay species, including striped bass, bluefish, sharks, ospreys, pelicans, eagles, and dolphins.

MenhadenboatMenhaden are the object of a “reduction” fishery in Reedville, Va., that catches and processes the fish into oil and meal, making Reedville one of the largest fish-landing ports (by weight) in the United States. The little fish also are the bait of choice for most commercial crabbers.

Menhaden fishery operations have a significant positive economic impact and support several hundred jobs in the Commonwealth. A recent Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) study indicated that menhaden fisheries generated more than 500 full- and part-time jobs in Virginia.

Menhaden also nourish Chesapeake Bay striped bass, bluefish, summer flounder, and other popular fish sought by commercial and recreational fishing industries. Another study by VIMS shows that 2,400 jobs are supported by menhaden-dependent species in Virginia alone, and fishing for menhaden-dependent species contributes $357 million to Virginia’s economy annually.

Virginia legislators must act to ensure the health of the menhaden population, the Bay ecosystem, and Virginia’s economy by approving House Bill 1840. You can help by letting them know you expect them to do just that.

Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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