According to an article in the Virginia Mercury newspaper published on the VPAP website, menhaden fishing company Omega Protein has added a new vessel to its fleet in response to net spills last year that resulted in thousands of dead fish washing ashore on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
This season, the reduction fishery company is using the new 85-foot vessel called the Hopeful Harvest and two 20-foot skimmers to catch any fish lost due to a net spill during catching operations.
The Hopeful Harvest vessel will be docked while the company’s fishing vessels are out making their catches, explained company spokesperson Ben Landry. The vessel will be deployed when needed, with the skimmers being used to scoop up any dead fish and transfer them to Hopeful Harvest.
Because it takes dead fish that have sunk into the water as a result of a net spill about 24 hours to surface, the vessel should be able to collect any spilled fish before they reach the shore, Landry said.
“We’re excited to have a resource that we’ve wanted for a long time,” said Landry. “We’ve kind of tinkered with that idea for a while,” he added, saying high-profile spills last year spurred Omega Protein to conclude “it’s probably good to put a fast-forward on those plans.”
The high-profile spills Landry referenced included a July 5 incident last year in which an estimated 19,582 menhaden washed ashore on Silver Beach in Northampton County, according to data from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
Another spill happened July 25 when the company opened its purse seine nets to avoid accidentally catching red drum. An estimated 10,000 menhaden and 264 red drum washed ashore at Kiptopeke State Park in Northampton County in the second spill.
Additional data from VMRC shows there were 17 documented net spills between 2018 and 2022, involving a range from 29,857 fish last year to 625,000 in 2021. In 2020, Omega Protein was the source of three of the four spills, and the bait fishery accounted for the other.
Omega announced the new vessel in December. That month, VMRC entered into a non-legally binding memo of understanding with the company that prevented it from fishing on weekends and around holidays. The commission had also considered adopting new regulations that would have banned the company from fishing within a one-mile boundary of the shore in an attempt to prevent net tears.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist Chris Moore said the frequency of fish spills has reached a point that the company needs the new vessel, but added the company needs to focus on preventing net spills in the first place.
“Rather than floating dead on the water, these menhaden should be providing food for striped bass, whales, osprey, and other wildlife,” Moore said in a statement. “If Omega Protein really wants to stop net spills, the company would agree to enforceable regulations that would limit fishing to deeper waters where spills are less likely to occur.”
Several bills on menhaden were introduced during the past legislative session, including one failed measure that sought to force Omega out of the Chesapeake Bay to fish solely in the ocean for two years while the state studied the fishery’s impact in the estuary. Omega Protein contends fishing within the Bay is needed when weather conditions in the ocean are too dangerous.
The only menhaden bill to pass asks the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences to determine what would be needed for a study of the fishery in the Bay but does not order a study.