VMRC declines to exercise authority by setting any limits on harvest of critical forage fish species
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission disappointed recreational fishing and resource conservation advocates throughout the Chesapeake Bay region yesterday by siding with Canadian-owned industrial menhaden harvester Omega Protein over the concerns of tens of thousands of Virginia anglers and residents.
Hundreds of Virginians attended the Dec. 6 VMRC meeting to comment on a proposal by the Youngkin Administration that would have established one-mile buffers from Bay shorelines and a half-mile buffer on either side of the Bay Bridge Tunnel, where purse seining would be prohibited. Menhaden purse-seine fishing would have also been closed during peak recreational periods around Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.
However, instead of approving the proposals, which had been reached through months of stakeholder engagement and compromises, the VMRC approved a watered-down resolution crafted by Omega Protein, with no other opinions sought. It aims to create a Memorandum of Understanding with the Commonwealth of Virginia to explore the possibility of protecting shorelines and limiting user conflicts.
The MOU did not propose any regulations to try to limit Omega’s extensive fish kills and net spills that fouled Chesapeake Bay shorelines throughout last summer, it simply outlined a potential agreement for the foreign-owned, industrial harvester and state regulators to consider conservation measures and short-term fishing closures in the future.
The motion passed 5 to 4 despite objections from Eastern-Shore-based commissioners who insisted the MOU would not address the concerns of conservation-minded stakeholders.
“We are disappointed with this outcome and moving forward, we are going to continue to fight to fix the problems in the Bay caused by the menhaden reduction fishery,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We recognized that the proposed closures did not address all the damage industrial reduction fishing is causing to fisheries and habitat in the Chesapeake. Still, anglers and concerned conservationists believed it was a step in the right direction. What passed the VMRC, however, gets us no closer to conserving and protecting the Bay.”
“Considering Omega Protein has a history of blatantly violating actual regulations, such as the Chesapeake Bay cap in 2019, it is extremely difficult to believe how a memorandum of understanding is going to accomplish anything,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “While the proposed regulation was not a panacea, it surely would have had a better chance of limiting net spills and user conflicts than this do-nothing memorandum of understanding.”
“Given everything that has occurred with net spills, contaminated beaches, and 12,000 pounds of dead red drum, why would the governor’s commission appointees vote against the administration’s proposal?” says Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “This is a stunning example of poor governance.”
“Our members are deeply frustrated by the VMRC’s decision to reject the Youngkin Administration’s commonsense proposal to address the decades-long user conflicts and wasteful net spills in the Chesapeake,” says Rob Allen, chairman of CCA Virginia. “This is a failure of the public trust and is an important reminder of why all anglers and conservation-minded Virginians must continue to focus on working together to demand a better future for our Bay fisheries.”
“It is very disheartening that the VMRC voted against the Youngkin Administration’s own plan, which the Virginia angling community strongly supported,” says Captain Mike Ostrander, president of the Virginia Anglers Club, one the Commonwealth’s oldest sportfishing organizations. “Instead, we got a weak gentleman’s agreement that’s not legally enforceable. The region’s anglers, boaters, and coastal communities deserve much better.”
More than 10,000 anglers and conservationists from Virginia and up and down the East Coast have signed a petition asking Governor Youngkin to protect the Chesapeake Bay from the negative impacts of industrial menhaden fishing. The petition was delivered to Youngkin and the VMRC in mid-October.
Learn more about the recreational fishing community’s push for better management of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico.
Photo by Gaelin Rosenwaks. Follow her on Instagram @gaelingoexplore.