By Linda Cicoira
The Studies Subcommittee of the Virginia House of Delegates voted this week to recommend continuing a bill for another year that calls for a study of Atlantic menhaden populations in the Chesapeake Bay.
The bill was introduced by Republican Lee Ware of Powatan and supported by Delegate Rob Bloxom. It was recommended to be pulled by voice vote in the Rules committee, chaired by Speaker of the House Don Scott, a Democrat from Portsmouth. No explanation as to the reason has yet been given.
The proposal directed the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and certain stakeholders to study the ecology, fishery impacts, and economic importance of the small silvery fish, a quest that started years ago.
The three-year study’s findings and recommendations were then to be sent to the Chairmen of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources, and the Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources no later than Oct. 1, 2027.
The menhaden is a crucial part of the larger Chesapeake Bay food web and is largely fished by Omega Protein, a Canadian company.
House Bill 19 would have funded research aimed at resolving pressing questions shared by anglers and some scientists: What’s the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden population and how is commercial fishing affecting menhaden?
Over the summer, without additional funding, VIMS and the VMRC workers gathered a coalition including Omega Protein and Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It came up with recommendations that should be included in a menhaden study.
Anglers, conservationists, and some scientists have long been concerned that the scale of the fishery concentrated in the Chesapeake Bay could lead to a lack of sufficient menhaden, causing ripple effects throughout the food chain for commercially and recreationally important species such as striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish. Menhaden also serves as nutrient-rich food for osprey, striped bass, and whales. Virginia is the only state along the Atlantic Coast to still allow reduction fishing for menhaden in its waters. The most recent studies by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a group of scientists that study all fish populations in the mid-Atlantic, have concluded over fishing of menhaden is not occurring and the stock is healthy.
On hearing about the subcommittee action, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Chris Moore stated, “This is supremely disappointing … The lack of a menhaden study leaves far too many questions unanswered and far too many of the Commonwealth’s resources expended over the last year wasted. The bill simply asks the General Assembly to start the work of funding the consensus-based research recommendations. By opposing funding for these important research questions, Omega Protein once again proves they are not acting in good faith for the Chesapeake Bay, but rather only for their own pockets. Decision makers need more data to make science-backed and sound decisions to ensure a robust population of menhaden for generations to come.”