Omega Protein challenging menhaden catch limits on Chesapeake Bay

Fishermen process menhaden on the Chesapeake Bay.

ON THE CHESAPEAKE BAY (WAVY) — A leading environmental group and a major commercial fishing operation are at odds over the latest regulations for menhaden.

The oil-rich species is a food fish for striped bass, flounder, marine mammals and sea birds, as well as bait for crabbers. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says it’s an important link in the Bay’s ecosystem.

No one catches more menhaden than Omega Protein. The company operates out of Reedville and says it got a raw deal when regulators set the latest catch limits. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) says enough is enough.

READ: Statement from Omega Protein

Omega Protein’s 250 workers turn menhaden into fish oil, fish meal and other products. Omega is challenging the latest catch limits set in November by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, but CBF says those limits are sensible.

“The updates to our plan would allow the catch in the Chesapeake Bay to remain the same as what it was in the last five years,” said Chris Moore, the organization’s chief scientist. “We actually get a small increase in catch out in the ocean.”

Related: New Chesapeake Bay menhaden rules spark praise, criticism

But Omega sent us a statement that says Virginia was treated unfairly when the commission cut the harvest limit in the Chesapeake Bay by 40 percent, even though Virginia alone already gets more than three quarters of the allocated catch for the entire Atlantic Coast. The 2018 allocation for Virginia is more than 170,000 metric tons, and Omega is far and away Virginia’s biggest harvester of menhaden.

Moore says the plan adopted in November, also known as Amendment 3, is a good one for the health of the Bay.

READ: Revised catch limit allocations 

“There was a tremendous amount support from Virginians for Amendment 3, in fact support for a much stronger Amendment 3.”

But Omega says despite what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation might believe, the menhaden population in the bay is healthy. The environmental group says if Virginia doesn’t comply with the new catch limits, it could face sanctions from the Commerce Department in Washington.

“Unfortunately now we’re at a point where Virginia needs to adopt those changes in order to stay in compliance with the coastwide fishery management plan, and Omega’s really pushing back on that effort.”

Omega disagrees and says Virginia’s situation is not quite that critical. In fact, Omega says the only way to get a fair hearing would be to go out of compliance and let the Commerce Secretary make a ruling. Even if Omega would lose on that ruling – the state would get a grace period before any sanctions would happen.