Members of the recreational fishing and conservation community focus on next steps to conserve the Bay as purse seine sector celebrates toothless memorandum of understanding
An agreement signed last week to address the impacts of industrial menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay falls short of limiting real damage inflicted by the fishery on recreational fishing and broader ecosystem health, based on a collective initial assessment by a coalition of sportfishing and conservation groups.
Last Thursday, commercial purse seiners announced a voluntary agreement with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to avoid fishing in a small portion of the Chesapeake Bay, purportedly to avoid net spills near populated areas. However, the non-binding agreement is centered on the narrow goal of limiting and responding to future spill incidents, in which dead menhaden and other fish species released from nets foul area beaches, and does not address all areas within the Bay.
What the MOU does:
- States that purse seiners will not fish within a half-mile of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, nor within one mile of the lower Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach regions.
- States that purse seiners will not fish inside Bay waters on holidays, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, nor on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
- Outlines how the VMRC and purse seiners will develop a fish spill response protocol.
What the MOU does not do:
- Establish any buffer in the northern portion of the Bay.
- Prevent net spills outside the most populous areas of the Bay shoreline.
- Create enforceable regulations of the reduction fishery.
- Reduce the amount of menhaden removed from the Bay, which currently amounts to more than 100 million pounds of fish each year.
In short, the agreement does not address the concerns of Virginians regarding user conflicts and fish spills that have plagued the Bay for years.
“The menhaden MOU is a positive step, but it falls short in several ways,” says Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “The buffer of one nautical mile does not extend to the Rappahannock River area, which is a popular spot for recreational fishing. The agreement also fails to address longstanding concerns about overharvest in the Bay.”
In December 2022, hundreds of Virginians attended a VMRC meeting to comment on a proposal by the Youngkin Administration that would have established regulations negotiated over months of stakeholder engagement. At that meeting, the VMRC agreed to instead pursue the non-binding memorandum of understanding with industrial menhaden harvester Omega Protein, which became final last week.
“While the memorandum of understanding covers a similar set of issues as the regulations put before VMRC last December, there is one big difference—enforceability,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “Whether or not Omega Protein abides by the agreement, and we hope they do, there is still much more work to be done to lessen the harm that reduction fishing is causing to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.”
Throughout 2022, reduction fishing boats caused multiple Eastern Shore fish spills, resulting in the waste of an estimated 12,000 pounds of red drum bycatch and beach closures on major holidays, including Independence Day weekend. As recently as 2019, Omega willfully exceeded its 51,000-metric-ton catch limit in the Bay, inspiring tens of thousands of anglers, dozens of business and organizations, and nine East Coast governors to request that the Secretary of Commerce get involved.
“This memorandum of understanding with a foreign-owned, industrial-scale fishing operation in the Chesapeake Bay does little to address conservation of menhaden as a vital forage fish for striped bass and other sportfish,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “While it is our sincere hope that the Commonwealth of Virginia will work to minimize user conflicts and fish spills in the Bay, this non-binding framework relies on the state’s ability to trust cosigners to abide by the rules. The reduction fishery hasn’t earned this trust.”
Last year, more than 10,000 anglers and conservationists from Virginia and up and down the East Coast signed a petition asking Gov. Youngkin to move industrial reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay until science could show that the fishery was not having a negative impact on the ecosystem or the economy. The petition was delivered to Youngkin and the VMRC in October 2022.
“It is our hope that the signing of this MOU is only the first step toward increased conservation measures for this staple forage fish species,” says Chad Tokowicz, government relations manager for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “As we inch toward the May openings of Maryland and Virginia’s respective striped bass seasons, it will be obvious the importance menhaden have for this keystone recreational species.”
Anglers remain engaged and anxious to see more meaningful action to safeguard menhaden, sportfish, and the Bay economy. The conservation community looks forward to working with the Youngkin Administration this September on the implementation of a menhaden study that would fill gaps in the data about the impact of the reduction fishery on Bay health and sportfish populations.
Virginia continues to be the only East Coast state allowing reduction fishing of menhaden—a practice where millions of pounds of these forage fish are turned into fishmeal, fish oil, fertilizer, or similar products—in its waters.
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.