In July, photos began circulating on social media of what appeared to be yet another net spill from the increasingly unpopular and controversial Omega protein. To make matters worse, this spill included an unknown number of large red drum thrown in along with thousands of menhaden. Omega Protein is the largest participant in the commercial menhaden fishery on the Atlantic Coast – primarily by reducing their catch to fishmeal and oil. Menhaden are regularly labeled “the most important fish in the sea”, due to their role as an essential forage fish, supporting species such as striped bass, red drum, bluefin tuna, whales, dolphins and birds, and as filter feeder. They are even able to filter seven liters of water per minute, gallons of water per day! Today, however, a state and a corporation are removing millions of pounds of menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership wants the fishery held accountable.
Menhaden management is complex. One state, Virginia, is allocated 78.7 percent of the total coastal quota, which is 194,000 metric tons. So Virginia is allowed to catch more than 150,000 metric tons of menhaden, which translates to more than 335 million pounds. Well, Omega routinely fishes the Chesapeake Bay, removing millions of pounds of this essential forage. species from the estuary and the nation’s largest nursery for many important species such as striped bass and red drum.
This summer alone, Omega has been responsible for two net spills, leaving thousands of fish washed up along the shores around the Chesapeake Bay. The most recent net spill occurred on July 25 near Virginia’s Kiptopeke State Park and resulted in an unconfirmed amount of red drum and menhaden washed ashore.
Omega is the only remaining mitigation operation on the Atlantic coast, and Virginia is the only host state. Other Atlantic states abandoned this industry over the years. However, now Omega persecutes the menhaden population with tactical precision, using spotter planes, dozens of large fishing vessels and purse seines (the net length is about 1,000-1,400 ft and the net depth is 65-90 ft, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Atmospheric).
According to NOAA and ASMFC, there is very little bycatch in the Menhaden fishery – less than one percent. However, two concerns remain: there are no observers to monitor the necessary bycatch, and in a fishery of nearly 430 million pounds (194 metric tons), half a percent of the bycatch is 21.5 million pounds. No matter how diligent Omega is, they will occasionally encounter non-target species, and given the sheer volume of this fishery, this can add up.
While the ASMFC has implemented a harvest limit in the Gulf and ecological reference points (considering the ecosystem role of menhaden for management) are under development and the most recent update of the 2022 stock assessment concluded that the stock in coast-wide is not overfished or experiencing overfishing, many organizations are concerned about the damage being done to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Specifically, they are concerned about ‘localized depletion’ in the bay, which is the idea that Omega is removing too many menhaden, thereby harming species in the bay that depend on this keystone forage species. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is leading the effort, along with other groups such as the Virginia Saltwater Sportsmen’s Association, and is now asking Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to regulate Omega’s menhaden operation outside the jurisdictional waters of the Chesapeake Bay. until science can prove that localized depletion is not happening.
In recent years, Omega has achieved super-villain status in the Gulf watershed. Images of massive ships scooping up millions of pounds of menhaden evoke an emotional response, especially since many of the Gulf’s fishermen are struggling. And, these recent photos of beaches covered in dead menhaden and red drum add more fuel to the fire. But the fact remains that the best available science finds the menhaden stock to be healthy – but that doesn’t disprove the idea that Omega is harming the Gulf.
Time will tell if this petition can sway the Youngkin administration to prioritize the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem over the interests of a particular (Canadian-owned) industrial fishing operation. One point of related information was the Governor’s appointment of former US Department of Environmental Protection Agency administrator and coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the VA Department of Natural Resources, which now has menhaden management authority. Wheeler’s nomination was ultimately blocked because of his poor environmental record during his years in the Trump administration, but now Wheeler has been tapped to lead Virginia’s Office of Regulatory Management.
Youngkin may soon begin to feel pressure from thousands of stakeholders concerned about Omega’s impact on the Chesapeake Bay and questioning the continued usefulness of a separate industrial fishing operation. But one thing is for sure, Omega must be held responsible for the latest net spill. Charter captains, private fishermen, local communities benefit from adult red drum, which are protected by a tight slot limit, and abundant menhaden populations – however it remains to be seen whether Omega will be penalized.
Photo by Christine Snook who was on the beach where the net spill washed ashore.
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