Special Investigation: Huge menhaden haul, a controversial catch

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – There’s trouble brewing in our waters. The Texas-based company Omega Protein has been catching menhaden for more than one hundred years, but local fishermen say Omega causes big problems – not just for them but for the local environment.

A local group of fishermen and recreational boaters says the commercial fishing operation is crowding them out and causing harm to the Chesapeake Bay. The company says it complies with all laws and environmental regulations.

Photos: Omega Protein fishing off Virginia Beach

Omega Protein has fished for menhaden in the bay beginning in the 1870s. The company is involved in an operation known as reduction, where the fish is converted into fish oil, fish meal, proteins and food additives.

Omega has eight boats that fish the bay out of its terminal and reduction plant in Reedville. The head of the Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation says Omega fishes too close to shore.

“It makes no sense why it’s allowed. I don’t understand why,” said Steven Epstein, the group’s founder. “There’s no explanation for it.”

10 On Your Side recorded video of two Omega boats’ menhaden operations in September. The Dempster was about three-quarters of a mile from Chic’s Beach not far from Lynhaven Inlet. The Tangier Island was closer, about six-tenths of a mile from shore.

Omega explained why it needs to fish that close to the shore. “This might seem like an oversimplification, but that’s where the fish are,” said Omega spokesman Ben Landry. “We try to avoid sensitive areas as best we can. Our captains have all been fishing for 20 to 25 years and they know those sensitive areas.”

Omega is breaking no laws by fishing close to shore, because there is no such law. Omega says it honors a gentleman’s agreement that Omega captains will not fish in a three-mile buffer from the Cape Henry Lighthouse to the fishing pier at Sandbridge. That zone comprises the Oceanfront tourist area. But Omega says it is free to harvest fish in waters outside that zone, especially in the Chesapeake Bay. “That school of menhaden or that portion of that school of menhaden to us is fair game,” Landry said.

Omega uses spotter planes to find menhaden schools. The planes radio the boat captains, and when they get close to the school, the captains launch two smaller boats. The two smaller boats set a “purse seine” net to capture the menhaden, thousands at a time. The main boat then hauls in the purse seine net and uses a suction hose to move the fish from the net to a refrigerated hold. Seawater is used as part of the transfer. The boat then pumps the seawater out on the opposite side of the boat, back into the bay. It rises to the surface as a smelly gray foam.

“There could be some organic matter, there could be some fish, fish scales, fish flesh, things like that,” Landry said about the bubbly discharge. The Department of Environmental Quality says the discharge is not a violation.Late Monday afternoon, 10 On Your Side received a detailed explanation of the process.

Omega Statement on Water Discharge

Unlike other species of fish, the Virginia General Assembly is involved with regulating menhaden. Fisherman and Delegate Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) says it’s been that way for at least fifty years, and he says that needs to change. “I want to base it on science. I want to put it in the purview of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.”

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulates menhaden in conjunction with the General Assembly. The industry group Menhaden Fishery Coalition says the ASMFC is the right organization, and not the VMRC, to get the science right. The group also says Omega undergoes continuous environmental monitoring and complies with all regulations both aboard its boats and at its plant in Reedville. Omega says it employs about 260 people in Reedville and another 550 people in Louisiana and Mississippi for its operations in the Gulf of Mexico. The firm is based in Houston, Texas.

Epstein says he wants to see Omega in the ocean, not the bay. “Get them out of the bay until we know what the impact of them being in the bay is.”

Landry says he understands the locals’ passion, but adds that Omega has no intention of leaving. “If the dialogue starts with ’let’s push Omega’s boats outside of Virginia’s Bay waters,’ that’s not a reasonable starting point to us.”

Menhaden catch limits were cut by 20 percent a few years ago, but then Governor McAuliffe signed legislation this summer passed by the General Assembly, raising the limits by about ten percent. Omega’s limit in Virginia waters is now the equivalent of about 350 million pounds of fish each year.
A recent study found menhaden was not being overfished. Omega’s opponents dispute that conclusion and say more specific studies are needed.

Additional Resources:

Menhaden Mentioned in the Virginia Code

Virginia Marine Resources Commission

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Menhaden Fishery Coalition

Comments are closed.