Editor’s note: On rare occasions we may swap out the usual Notes from the Cockpit column for critical communications on topics of concern to Chesapeake Bay fishing fans and Mid-Atlantic anglers. This is one of those occasions.
Twice in less than a month, Omega Protein, the industrial menhaden harvester, littered the beaches along Virginia’s Eastern Shore with Atlantic menhaden, wasting thousands of this important forage fish. This latest mishap also killed hundreds of large red drum, a popular sportfish, that became entangled in the operation’s net as bycatch. Preliminary counts reported to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) indicate that as much as 12,000 pounds of 30- to 50-pound redfish were cleaned up on the water and along nearby beaches. Given red drum biology, it is highly likely those big, mature fish were in the Bay and had targeted a menhaden school to build up energy for reproducing the next generation.
Canadian-owned Omega Protein acknowledged that its contractor Ocean Harvesters, based out of Reedville, Virginia, was responsible for the July 25 mishap that resulted in dead fish washing up on the beaches of Pickett Harbor, Kiptopeke State Park, and Sunset Beach. The company also accepted responsibility for a July 5 net failure that spilled thousands of dead menhaden along Silver Beach, another popular vacation destination about 15 miles to the north.
These net spills are yet another reminder of why the Coastal Conservation Association and American Sportfishing Association are part of a broad coalition of local, regional and national recreational fishing and boating groups that have asked Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to stop the use of industrial purse seine gear in a major portion of the Chesapeake Bay “until science demonstrates” that it will not negatively affect the estuary’s ecosystem. Stopping the use of purse seine gear in the Chesapeake Bay would bring consistency with Maryland’s prohibition of the gear enacted nearly a century ago.
These latest net spills aren’t the first time Omega Protein has proven itself to be a bad corporate neighbor in Chesapeake Bay. Last September, Omega Protein nets tore on two separate incidents, forcing the company to dump more than 400,000 dead menhaden into Hampton Roads waters. In December of 2019, Virginia was found out of compliance by the U.S. Department of Commerce after Omega Protein knowingly violated the 51,000-metric ton Chesapeake Bay harvest cap on menhaden, a cautionary limit on harvest agreed to by coast-wide fishery managers. Moreover, Cooke Inc., the parent company of Omega Protein, has paid nearly $13 million in penalties for violations related to the environment, safety, government contracting, and finances, according to the Good Jobs First website.
In response to the 2021 net spills, the VMRC Menhaden Advisory Committee considered the development of a buffer, or area closure, to minimize the possibility of snagging large purse seine nets in nearshore shallow waters, while also providing protection for recreational species that frequent nearshore habitats. Unfortunately, the proposal did not move forward because it was opposed by the Omega Protein representative who cited net spills as a rare, infrequent event that is not in need of a solution.
This year’s spills have shown that these occurrences are not as rare as previously thought, and all eyes are on Virginia’s fisheries managers and leadership in Richmond to curb this wasteful action. Simply put, the publicly held resources of the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the sportfishing, boating, and tourism economy deserve more than promises from an international fisheries juggernaut.
- Mike Leonard
American Sportfishing Association
Vice President Government Affairs
VMRC Menhaden Advisory Member
- David Sikorski
Coastal Conservation Association Maryland
Chair- MD Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission
The American Sportfishing Association is the trade association representing manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers within the nation’s $128 billion recreational fishing industry.
Coastal Conservation Association is a grassroots, non-profit, membership organization of anglers and coastal enthusiasts from 17 coastal states spanning the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts. CCA is focused on ensuring the health of our nation’s marine resources and anglers’ access to them.