Recreational fisherman want Omega out of Chesapeake Bay

September 5, 2022

Thank you for your recent coverage of menhaden, arguably the most important fish in the bay.

It is encouraging that state legislators want something done about repeated net spills on the shore and also show interest in research to see if the controversial menhaden reduction industry is damaging the bay’s fragile ecosystem. Fishermen have long been concerned about localized depletion of menhaden in the bay even though menhaden are not considered “overfished” on a coast wide basis. We are equally concerned about bycatch as witnessed in the recent red drum kill, estimated at 12,000 pounds, near Kiptopeake. Since then, there have been additional sightings of dead menhaden and sea turtles in the vicinity of the menhaden ships. This summer has been especially harsh as the industry has fished the bay almost every day instead of venturing into the ocean where they have historically caught about 2/3 of their total. Why the intense focus on the bay?

Shockingly, Omega Protein told the VMRC at their August meeting they now prefer the bay because they need to hit their bay quota or possibly risk having the quota lowered in future years. Really? Does that sound like good stewardship of our bay resources?

Of course, anglers would like to see more research on bay menhaden but scientists say it will take 7-10 years to get good data. These fish move around so a one- or two-year assessment won’t tell you much. What we do know is that striped bass are in decline, partly due to overfishing, and partly because they are heavily dependent on menhaden for forage, more so than any other fish. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave more menhaden in the bay since it is where at least 70% of all striped bass are produced? This year’s intense pressure is particularly worrisome because in spite of daily fishing with 6-7 ships, they still have not hit their bay quota. I guess you can’t catch what’s not there. But they will keep trying until they get the 112 million pounds from our bay. Yes, this is an insane amount of fish by any standard, enough to fill tractor trailer trucks and have a convoy from Richmond to Fredericksburg. And by allowing them to fish in the bay at a lower cost than fishing the ocean, Virginia in effect is subsidizing this operation. How crazy is that?

The Charlotte Hotel Onancock

Sadly, the longer they remain in the bay the greater the likelihood of more net spills, contaminated beaches, and harmful bycatch.

There is only one good solution…move this fishery out of the bay and into the ocean waters where less harm will occur. Every other state on the east coast has outlawed the reduction fishery. It is time for Virginia to wake up! For years this industry was protected by a few influential politicians in Richmond. Now that it is managed by the VMRC, thanks to the efforts of Senator Lewis and others, it is time for real regulation and oversight. If we are serious about striped bass, once our most valuable fishery, and other fish, crabs, birds, and mammals that eat menhaden, it is time for action. And, if the Governor is serious about the bay, he would be wise to listen to the thousands of fishermen, environmental groups and bay area residents who have signed a petition to move industrial reduction fishing out of the bay. Importantly, this would not apply to the much smaller menhaden bait business that supplies crabbers and fishermen throughout the area, and might actually help this and other commercial fisheries.

Steve Atkinson
President, Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Assn.

Matthews Market

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