Conservation Groups petition to increase regulation of menhaden nets

August 4, 2023
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A coalition of recreational fishing and boating groups is endorsing a petition that calls on the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) to increase regulation of the nets used by Omega Protein to fish for menhaden in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. 

The recently filed petition urges the state’s fishery regulators to limit the allowable fishing zones based on the depth of the large “purse seine” nets that currently extend as much as 60 feet down, including in shallower areas of the estuary, which, the petition states, is causing fish spills, the unintended netting of game fish, and damage to the seabed.

According to the petition, Ocean Harvesters, a subsidiary of Omega Protein and two other companies, is employing the 1,400-foot-long, 500-pound nets in crucial Bay habitat, and because the nets are deeper than much of the Bay itself, are causing damage to large amounts of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacing sea grasses and other bottom growth. The nets are also the culprit behind the massive fish spills of dead menhaden and game fish, such as red drum, washing onto Bay beaches in recent years, sometimes due to net tears. Red drum, striped bass, and other sportfish can be trapped inadvertently as the fish are unable to escape through the net bottom before the nets are “pursed” (i.e. closed), due to contact with the shallow seafloor. 

The petition acknowledges that purse seine fishing in open water is “generally considered to be an efficient form of fishing,” but that is only the case when the net has “no contact with the seabed,” which is not the case under current practices by Ocean Harvesters. 

“We need to protect Virginia shorelines, and the striped bass and other species that depend on these fragile seagrass habitats, from what is a damaging method of harvest,” says Jaclyn Higgins, Forage Fish Program Manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, one of the members of the coalition endorsing the petition. “Many sportfish rely on these shallow nearshore areas to spawn and take shelter. With so many iconic Bay species in peril, every action taken to protect them is a great step forward for Bay stewardship.”

The petition was filed by Bill Dunn, an avid fisherman who has lived on two of the major rivers off the Chesapeake Bay for most of his life. Dunn is a retired design and project manager of low voltage electronic systems including communications, security, and data.

“I hereby request that the VMRC implement regulations on the depth of these purse seine nets within the shallow waters of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay and offshore waters to meet the purse seine net design criterion in order to provide no contact with the seabed in order to eliminate these issues,” Dunn sets forth in the petition. “This could be implemented with a regulation such as ‘No Purse Seine net may be placed in any area of Virginia’s waters that is less than five-feet deeper than the depth of the actual net utilized.’”

The State of Maryland, whose boundaries share the Chesapeake Bay with the Commonwealth, does not allow such industrial menhaden harvesting in its area of the Bay.

The petition is aligned with several collective efforts to crack down on Omega Protein, the largest menhaden harvesting operation in the bay and the largest employer in Northumberland County, Virginia. According to its website, Omega Protein employs approximately 1,150 people. Founded in 1913 as a fishing operation, the company now produces food ingredients, dietary supplements and animal & pet feed. Their products include fish oil, fish meal, and proteins.

Omega Protein came under fire locally last year after multiple ripped nets spilled dead menhaden and red drum on beaches in Northampton County.

The last report of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on the menhaden stock in the Chesapeake Bay stated the menhaden stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. Omega’s representatives have blamed the low numbers of rockfish in the bay on overfishing by recreational fishermen.

The public is encouraged to comment online on the petition until August 21, 2023, through this link: https://townhall.virginia.gov/L/ViewPetition.cfm?petitionId=392.

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