New Chesapeake Bay menhaden rules spark praise, criticism

New regulations on the harvest of menhaden are proving a mixed bag for local industry and conservationists.

ON THE CHESAPEAKE BAY, Va. (WAVY) – New regulations on the harvest of menhaden are proving a mixed bag for local industry and conservationists.

Menhaden is a key part of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, serving as food for larger fish, mammals and birds. But they are also the key raw material for Omega Protein. Every day Omega turns tons of menhaden into fish oil, fish meal and other products.

As we showed you in our investigation Controversial Catch two years ago, Omega is the last major company of its kind on the Atlantic Coast, and has been operating in Reedville since the mid-1800s. Omega employs about 250 people there.

This week at its meeting near Baltimore, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has raised the total allowable catch of menhaden, from Maine to Florida, by 8 percent.

But Omega is not happy about that, because at the same time, the commission cut the amount the company can catch from the Chesapeake Bay by 40 percent.

Omega Spokesman Ben Landry calls that measure punitive, unfair, 100 percent political, and not based on science.

Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sees the cap on the menhaden haul in the bay differently. The organization says the measure was an important step.

“We simply updated that regulation to the average of the last five years’ catch,” said CBF scientist Chris Moore. “It will ensure that more menhaden stay in the water in the future.”

Moore says while menhaden populations along the entire Eastern Seaboard are generally healthy, the Bay is a different story.

“The number of small fish especially in the Chesapeake Bay has not been high for the last 20 years.”

CBF says it will continue to push for “ecologically-based reference points” for managing menhaden, a system it says would more accurately reflect its role in the food chain. The Marine Fisheries Commission rejected that proposal at this week’s meeting.

Omega also takes issue with how the Commission has allocated the annual menhaden harvest.

Every Atlantic state now has a piece of the action, at least 0.5 percent of the total capacity of 216,000 metric tons – even if they don’t have a menhaden industry, like New York and Pennsylvania.

Omega says that takes away from Virginia’s allotment.

Menhaden is the only species of fish regulated by the General Assembly. State Senator Richard Stuart grew up in the Northern Neck – and he’s the governor’s appointee on the Marine Fisheries Commission.

Stuart says he’s disappointed with the new rules. Stuart told 10 On Your Side Wednesday afternoon he’ll work with Governor-elect Ralph Northam to devise a menhaden strategy that’s in the best interests of Virginians.