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(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:
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
Organization encourages the Forest Service to conserve big game and cold-water habitats
Today, the Lolo National Forest released its Proposed Action to revise the Lolo Forest Plan that when completed will guide land management decisions for two million acres of public lands overseen by the Lolo National Forest in western Montana.
“The Lolo offers vital habitat for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and moose, and native fish like bull trout and Westslope cutthroat,” said Scott Laird, Montana field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But these lands are facing increased pressure from a growing human population and hotter, drier weather, and hunters and anglers need to speak up during the process.”
The Lolo National Forest provides important wildlife habitat for nationally significant big game populations, five major river systems, and recreational and commercial opportunities that support thousands of jobs in local communities.
Today’s announcement kicks off a 60-day formal comment period where the public can submit scoping comments that will be used to inform the draft forest plan, which is expected to be published at the end of 2024.
“Thousands of people recreate, hunt, fish, and work on the lands managed by the Lolo National Forest, all of whom have a vested interest in the outcome of this revision,” added Laird. “TRCP is committed to working with our supporters, partners, state and local governments, and other key stakeholders to see a successful planning outcome that conserves important big game and fisheries habitats and maintains special places for outdoor recreation.”
Read more about TRCP’s work in the Lolo HERE.
Waterfowl hunters have worked for decades to ensure that ducks and geese have quality places to nest, raise their broods, and winter. Through nearly a century of wetland protection and restoration, we’ve made great strides toward ensuring the long-term viability of waterfowl populations. Much of this habitat is on private agricultural lands. For example, the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), an expansive area in the northern Great Plains, is where 50-70% of North America’s ducks are hatched each year. It is also about 90% privately owned, with over half of the region in crop production.
Cropland wetlands, like those in the PPR, are protected from drainage through the wetland conservation compliance provisions of the Farm Bill, commonly known as Swampbuster, but they are typically not managed for waterfowl. Instead, they are usually farmed during dry years and left alone when flooded. This strategy can be successful for farmers when conditions are good, but it adds operational uncertainty and often leads to lost profit from flooding or soil salinity.
Recognizing an opportunity, our partners at Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited worked directly with farmers, commodity groups, and state agencies to find ways to increase and enhance duck nesting habitat in the PPR. The solution they devised would be voluntary and incentive based, turning wetlands previously seen as an inconvenience into an asset. First piloted in North Dakota in 2015, this project became known as the Migratory Bird Resurgence Initiative (MBRI). The MBRI uses the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a Farm Bill Conservation program, to conserve the most important and most at risk small shallow wetlands. This practice provides a clear market signal to farmers that these small wetlands have value-not just to breeding ducks, but all people in the prairies and beyond. EQIP is well liked by farmers due to its numerous practice options and a great degree of flexibility. Thus, packaging a suite of EQIP practices into the MBRI makes it easier for farmers to enroll and for Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff to administer.
It’s important to foster more and better habitat in the breeding grounds, but without adequate winter habitat we won’t increase duck populations. Again, working in partnership with farm groups, Delta Waterfowl, and Ducks Unlimited, biologists identified post-harvest flooding of rice fields as a cost-effective way to increase habitat in a way that works with, not against, farmers’ operations. Here’s how:
Rice fields are engineered to be flooded during the growing season, which reduces weed pressure and increases yield. This design makes fields easy to flood in the winter too, during which time the flooding creates massive areas of winter habitat for ducks, geese, shorebirds, and more. These shallow water habitats also create public hunting opportunities, such as through the Arkansas Waterfowl Rice Program.
In 2024, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and our partners are asking that NRCS allocate additional funds for the PPR (MT, ND, SD, IA, and MN) and for the wintering grounds (MS, AR, CA, TX, LA). Our partners at Delta Waterfowl estimate that investment in the MBRI would:
By using the voluntary, incentive-based framework of Farm Bill conservation, we can create these outcomes in places we could never reach with other strategies. So, what needs to be done to make this a reality?
First, the NRCS needs to commit funds to the MBRI that reflect its innovative design and wide-ranging benefits. Restoring wetlands and creating wetland wildlife habitat fits squarely within the NRCS’ mission and few if any initiatives better meet NRCS’ stated objectives (even fewer were designed with as much intentional collaboration among hunters and farm groups). One way to financially support the MBRI would be by recognizing Wetland Wildlife Habitat Management as a climate-smart practice, which would make it eligible for funding through the Inflation Reduction Act. Wetlands are carbon storage powerhouses and restoring them only increases their capabilities.
Second, Congress needs to pass a Farm Bill that ensures that conservation programs like EQIP continue to support both agricultural production and wildlife habitat.
In December, the U.S. Forest Service released a notice to amend 128 land management plans across the National Forest System to promote the persistence and recruitment of old-growth forest conditions across the 193-million-acre National Forest System.
Hunters and anglers recognize that old growth is an important forest type for salmon, steelhead, and trout that benefit from the cold, clear water and habitat provided by older forests. In some places, old forests intercept snow during the coldest months, providing relief for wintering big game. Our community also values the young forests that provide forage for many wildlife species, including deer, elk, and grouse.
Fortunately, as proposed, the forthcoming Forest Service changes are thoughtful and would enhance the agency’s ability to maintain old growth stands through active stewardship—allowing for restoration to maintain forest resilience and to reduce the threat of uncharacteristic wildfire. The changes would also provide space for the creation of young growth habitats in areas of our national forests where old growth is not present.
Speak up for habitat by commenting today in support of balanced and scientifically defensible national forest policy. You can draft your own letter using our talking points below and easily submit them to the USFS comment portal link HERE.
Suggested Comments for your Convenience:
TRCP has developed suggested main points to help you submit formal comments on the Forest Service proposal. Individual comments carry more weight than form letters, and we appreciate you taking a few minutes to weigh in on this important issue:
Old growth trees and forests are important components of National Forest ecosystems, and we appreciate the USFS effort to create a consistent approach to protecting and managing old growth trees across our national forest system. Young, early seral forests are also important to the hunt-fish community, and we encourage the USFS to ensure that the value of early seral forests is recognized in the plan amendment process. Fortunately, as proposed, the forthcoming Forest Service changes are thoughtful and would enhance the agency’s ability to maintain old growth stands through active stewardship—allowing for restoration to maintain forest resilience and to reduce the threat of uncharacteristic wildfire. The changes would also provide space for young growth restoration projects in areas of our national forests where old growth is not present.
As you move forward with the nationwide amendment to create consistent management direction for old growth forests and other forest types, please consider these important comments to advance healthy forests on our public lands.
• Promote forest diversity and recognize that forests are dynamic. Young, middle-aged, and old forests across landscapes provide habitat for multiple species and their life cycle needs. To do so, we must view forests as dynamic collections of important seral states. Forests are healthiest when varying forest ages are interspersed across landscapes, from young forests to old growth.
• There is broad agreement that active forest management is necessary to reduce risks posed by wildfire, optimize carbon outcomes, improve wildlife habitat, safely restore fire to fire-adapted forests, and restore impaired ecosystems. The challenge is how to manage these landscapes at the scope and scale that will address the increasing need.
• The Forest Service must conduct more vegetation management on larger geographic scales to restore forest health and promote resilience, which includes an ecologically appropriate abundance and distribution of mature and old growth forests where those traits are lacking.
• The old growth inventory and analysis of threats completed by the USFS found that mortality from wildfires is currently the leading threat to mature and old growth forests, followed by insects and disease. I support management efforts that focus on science-based restoration and wildfire treatments to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in mature and old growth as well as other forest types.
Photo credit: Jack Lander
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More