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The One that Didn't Get Away: The Atlantic's Largest Menhaden Fishing Fleet Faces Penalties

Pamela D'Angelo

Weather is always a factor for fishermen.

So this year, Omega Protein Corporation, which has the largest menhaden fishing fleet on the Atlantic Coast, followed the fish into the Chesapeake Bay rather than risk heavy seas. But in doing so they overstepped harvest limits.

The Chesapeake Bay is a nursery for many species including menhaden, a fish caught by local fishermen for bait and pursued on an industrial scale by Omega Protein to turn into fish oil and fish meal. The Canadian company has several U. S. fishing fleets, including the one in Reedville. The season isn’t over but Omega has exceeded the bay cap by more than a third.

At a meeting this week in New Hampshire, commissioners from Florida to Maine voted unanimously to find Virginia out of compliance. Eric Reid is a commercial fisherman who represented Rhode Island at this week's meeting.  "I got boats sitting at the dock too. And when the fed said fishing is over, we stayed tied to the dock. We didn't write a letter saying  'hey I've got 150 employees as well and we need to make money and we're going.' We stopped," Reid noted. "It kinda rubs my nose in it a little bit. I don't care for it."

Virginia's General Assembly oversees only one fish – menhaden -- and legislators have refused to adopt the Chesapeake Bay harvest cap. Virginia's commissioner, Steve Bowman, supported the finding.  "First and foremost on behalf of the Commonwealth I'd like to apologize for being in this situation," Bowman said. "Governor Northam, Secretary Strickler have demonstrated a desire to improve not only water quality but the environment in general, it's been one of the hallmarks of their administration and team. So, to be found out of compliance on such an important matter is very very disturbing."

Menhaden are linked to the health of other species like striped bass, now experiencing a decline partly linked to poor diet. At the same meeting this week, the commission also voted to reduce Chesapeake Bay striped bass commercial quotas by 18 percent. Anglers can catch one fish 18 inches or larger.

Next year, Virginia’s Menhaden bay harvest will be reduced by the amount of its excess this year.  The U. S. Department of Commerce will also consider penalties.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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