Welcome to spring, all you fish-talking folks! In years past we’d be a-chatter over the upcoming trophy rockfish trolling right about now, and although the excitement level may be slightly dampened by the various issues with both the fishery and the wider world. Still, most Mid-Atlantic anglers are feeling some serious anticipation to get out on the water. And stripers are only one piece of our piscatorial puzzle. Flounder are about to invade the coastal bays and inlets, fish like drum and cobia are getting beginning to head north, specks will soon be biting, and if we enjoy a lucky repeat of last year’s Spanish Invasion, backyard smokers from Pennsylvania to North Carolina will soon be puffing furiously. As all this activity cranks up, virtually every sportfish we’re looking forward to pursuing shares one thing in common: they all eat menhaden. A lowly baitfish of many names (bunker, pogies, alewives or simply “LY,” and the list goes on and on) menhaden play a shockingly important role in the food chain. Some of the species we enjoy pursuing munch on the little young-of-year “peanut” bunker in tributary rivers and creeks. Others hunt schooling adults in open waters. And some species depend on bunker almost entirely for their food source. It’s impossible to hold an intelligent conversation about the status of any fishery without at least considering the health of the menhaden stocks.

menhaden swimming
These little fish called bunker play a key role in multiple fisheries.

If you’ve been paying attention to recent news, you probably already know that in 2019 the sole company to harvest menhaden en masse, Omega Protein, not only exceeded its quota but did so knowingly, continuing to strain the waters of the Chesapeake with its nets long after busting past the 51,000 metric ton limit.

At this point most savvy anglers are well aware of the battle over menhaden, which has been raging for decades. But let’s take a moment to look at a few interesting facts that don’t often come up in the news or in conversation:

  • The 51,000 metric ton cap refers only to the Chesapeake Bay harvest; overall coast-wide the total allowable catch is 216,000 metric tons.
  • Every single state from Maine to Florida has banned purse seining for menhaden in their bays entirely, except for Virginia.
  • Around 85 percent of the menhaden harvested annually are landed in Virginia.
  • In the 1950s there were more than 20 menhaden reduction plants from Maine to Florida, and as many as 712,100 metric tons of menhaden were landed. In the 60s as the stocks plummeted those plants began closing, and today, just one remains: the Omega facility in Reedville, VA.

Now, considering those tidbits one might expect that we’re about to do some bunker-bashing on the state of Virginia. Nope. Quite the contrary. The state’s response to Omega’s actions in 2019 was not just appropriate, but laudable. Led by Governor Ralph Northam, who wrote a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and actually requested that the feds put a stop to the runaway train called Omega by putting a moratorium in place, Virginia is now showing some real leadership—and good sense—regarding the status of menhaden. In fact, as this column was written the state legislature voted to shift the responsibility for management to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), where it belongs.

In this case, we need to single out Governor Northam and say thanks, as an angling community, for doing the right thing. We know that there are many contentious issues a governor has to deal with on a daily basis, but those that directly impact us as anglers are critically important to our quality of life, our culture, and in many cases our businesses. Regardless of how we may feel about other issues, Governor Northam, THANK YOU for joining in the battle over bunker. We anglers truly appreciate it—and we remember this sort of thing, when voting time comes.