For second year in a row, legislators delay passage of bill that would support three-year study to determine the ecology, fishery impacts, and economic importance of the Atlantic menhaden population in Virginia waters
(RICHMOND, Va.) — Delegates in the Virginia General Assembly’s Studies Subcommittee voted on Monday to push House Bill 19 into the 2025 legislative session, effectively stalling its passage for the second year in a row. HB 19 would have directed the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, in collaboration with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, to study the ecology, fishery impacts, and economic importance of the Atlantic menhaden population in Commonwealth waters. The results would allow the VMRC to make better-informed decisions about menhaden management in Chesapeake Bay.
Conservation and recreational sportfishing organizations have expressed disappointment with this latest legislative setback, in the face of increasing anecdotal and scientific evidence of localized depletion of menhaden in the Chesapeake.
“It is disappointing that this important bill to support better science and data collection is stalling again, despite the public support from Chesapeake-area anglers, scientists and conservationists,” said Chris Macaluso, director of the Center for Marine Fisheries for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “To manage the Chesapeake Bay effectively, there is a need for robust data about the specific, concentrated impacts of this industrial-scale harvest of a critical forage species to Bay fisheries and habitats. It is also critical to better fisheries management to understand the impacts of the thousands of red drum, striped bass, and other sport and game fish that are trapped annually in commercial nets.”
“The fact that the industry was involved in designing the study, and then turned and lobbied against the bill, is yet another breach of public trust,” said Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association.
Menhaden have accounted for more than 60 percent of all commercial fish landings in Chesapeake Bay for over five decades. Yet sampling in the Bay has shown that the relative abundance of menhaden has decreased almost 16-fold in the last 40 years. While Atlantic menhaden are not classified as overfished coastwide – meaning up and down the Atlantic coast – localized depletion in the Bay from decades of industrial fishing could be a critical factor in the decreased availability of food for predators like striped bass, bluefish, redfish, cobia, and other sportfish, as well as ospreys, whales, and commercially important species.
“For decades we’ve known that menhaden are extremely important to the Chesapeake and Atlantic ecosystems, as well as invaluable forage for gamefish such as red drum and stripers,” said Capt. Chris Dollar, a Virginia fishing business owner and Chesapeake conservation advisor for the Coastal Conservation Association. “What’s been missing, however, is better science to get a handle on the health and abundance of the Bay’s local menhaden population. It’s no surprise that Omega Protein flip-flopped in their support of the study bill, but it’s extremely disheartening that a handful of elected officials agreed with them to again derail this vital research.”
“The MRAA is disappointed to see that this important legislation is once again delayed and that menhaden reduction fishing will continue in Virginia waters, without a comprehensive understanding of the potential economic and environmental impact,” said Chad Tokowicz, government relations manager for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “Studies like this are integral to gaining a more in-depth understanding of the Virginia menhaden fishery and will provide much-needed data to inform important fisheries management decisions.”
The study was specifically proposed to examine:
- The Chesapeake Bay menhaden population (seasonal abundance, movement rates, and predator consumption rates)
- Commercial fishery impacts on the menhaden population (fishery effort patterns, localized depletion analyses, and recreational fishery effects)
- Economic impacts of menhaden policy (socioeconomic tradeoffs in management, ecosystem services of the menhaden resource, and modelling conservation vs. removals)
In the 2023 legislative session, an introduced precursor bill, Senate Bill 1388, would have directed VIMS to begin the three-year study this year. However, it was heavily amended and instead directed VIMS to merely develop a study methodology with input from VMRC and fishery stakeholders. That methodology was published last October by VIMS, and advocates were hopeful it would finally lead to a bill authorizing and supporting the study.
Atlantic menhaden, which studies indicate comprise as much as 30 percent of the diet of striped bass, are removed from Virginia waters by industrial fishing operations to be “reduced” to fish meal, oil, and products used in livestock and fish farming feeds. Omega Protein, owned by Canadian-based Cooke Seafood, removes more than 100 million pounds of menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay each year, in addition to nearly 240 million pounds of menhaden from Virginia state waters outside the Bay.
Stock assessments indicate the Atlantic striped bass stock has been declining for years, with particularly concerning low populations in the Chesapeake Bay estuary, the primary spawning ground for 70 to 90 percent of the striped bass stock. Population declines and the resulting reduction in catches have led to a 50 percent loss in the economic value that striped bass fishing generates in Virginia. In neighboring Maryland, fisheries managers reported the 2023 year class of striped bass was one of the lowest ever recorded.
Virginia continues to be the only East Coast state allowing reduction fishing of menhaden in its waters.
Photo Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program