(Bay Journal) A coalition of groups representing recreational anglers and boaters has launched a campaign against certain types of commercial menhaden fishing in Virginia.

Together, 11 national and 10 Virginia-based groups sent a letter in mid-June to Gov. Glenn Youngkin asking him to move menhaden “reduction fishing” out of the Chesapeake Bay. Reduction fishing refers to commercial harvests of the oily baitfish to grind or “reduce” them into meal for use in pet food, vitamins and other products.

Fishing for menhaden using purse nets. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

The groups, which include the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and state and national sportfishing associations, are concerned that annual harvests of menhaden have “deprived gamefish like striped bass, bluefish and weakfish of a critical food source.”

The striped bass fishery is the largest marine recreational fishery in the country, the groups said, driving $166 million in recreational fishing activity in Virginia alone. But the economic value of striped bass fishing to the state has declined by more than 50% in the past decade, they said.

Striped bass stocks have been struggling for more than a decade, with anglers in the Bay recently facing an 18% reduction in striped bass harvest allowances.

Conservation and angler groups have long blamed the reduction fishery, based in Reedville, VA, for contributing to the striped bass decline.

The fishery, operated by Canada-based Omega Protein, harvests about three-quarters of all the menhaden caught along the East Coast. Measured by weight, menhaden are by far the largest harvest taken from the Bay.

But the impact of their harvest on striped bass in the Chesapeake is unclear. While menhaden constitute a sizeable portion of the diet of larger adult striped bass in coastal waters, studies show they are less important to those in the Bay where much of the striped bass population consists of juvenile fish that tend to eat smaller food species like bay anchovy.

Some scientists agree that menhaden should be managed in a precautionary manner while more studies are conducted on the overall ecological impact of annual harvests. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates regional menhaden harvests, agreed in 2020 to cut the allowable commercial harvest of Atlantic menhaden 10% from what it has been the last three years. Additional changes could be in store this fall.

Whitney Pipkin is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Virginia. You can reach her at wpipkin@bayjournal.com.

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