BY: Diane Bernard, Public News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — Last week, the U.S. Department of Commerce ordered Virginia’s menhaden fishery in the Chesapeake Bay, the largest on the East Coast, to close down because a fish-oil company exceeded the fishing limit enforced by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Chris Moore, the senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the move is an environmental victory because the fish are essential to maintaining the ecological balance of the Bay.
“They really serve as forage for a variety of other species,” Moore said; “so things like striped bass, things like speckled trout, things like summer flounder, birds like ospreys and loons.”
Officials from Reedville-based Omega Protein defended its noncompliance with the 51,000 metric-ton cap, claiming Virginia lawmakers had never adopted the cap. However, the state’s 2020 General Assembly will consider legislation to formally recognize the limit.
Moore said menhaden need protection more than ever because, over the past 20 years, the number of the small fish coming into the bay has gone down. He pointed out that scientists don’t know the exact number of menhaden in the bay at any particular time, but they do know this reduction has impacted the populations of striped bass and rockfish in the ecosystem, which are showing signs of poor nutrition.
“We need to continue a management program that is precautionary and make sure that we leave enough forage out there for all the different species that depend upon menhaden for part of their life cycle,” he said.
He said if the Commonwealth’s Legislature doesn’t adopt a menhaden fishing quota in the upcoming General Assembly, the state will then have to deal with a moratorium on fishing beginning June 17.