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A call to ban menhaden fishing from a surprising source

Reduction fishing involves spotter planes, large nets and vacuums that remove schools of menhaden from Chesapeake Bay.
Reduction fishing involves spotter planes, large nets and vacuums that remove schools of menhaden from Chesapeake Bay.

Omega Protein is a Virginia company owned by an international firm based in Canada. It uses airplanes to spot schools of menhaden – then sends boats in with giant nets to capture and vacuum up fish. That approach is effective but unpopular according to Delegate Tim Anderson whose newly-drawn district includes Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore.

“Reduction fishing has been outlawed in every other east coast state, except for Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay,” he says.

Anderson argues that people can get the same nutrients supplied by fish oil from flaxseed, and industrial fishing of menhaden hurts marine mammals and sea birds. It also deprives bigger fish that depend on the little ones as food. That’s why Anderson says they’re increasingly scarce, making anglers and tour boat operators unhappy.

“The sports fishermen are like, ‘Hey, the trophy fish are gone. These fish that people pay a lot of money to go on tours and catch – striped bass for instance, they’re gone!”

So he’ll offer a bill to bar fishing for menhaden in the bay, but he knows the odds are against a ban. Omega gave $2,750 in campaign contributions to Democrats this year and ten times that much to Republicans.

“I doubt that that’s going to get much traction with the way the current general assembly is, but we’re going to start pushing it, we’re going to start talking about that, and it’s going to be a thorn in everyone’s side with me while I’m in the General Assembly.”

And he’s hopeful about another bill that would require fishing companies to pay damages to communities when their nets break and dead fish was ashore as happened over the July 4th weekend.

“A half a million fish wash up in Virginia Beach – well that fishing company should have to pay a substantial penalty to recover the tourist impact Virginia Beach incurred. Same thing in Silver Beach. You know there are people in Silver Beach right now who rent their houses on Airbnb, and they had all these cancellations, because nobody wanted to come down because of the dead fish.”

Governor Youngkin, who got a $25,000 contribution from Omega, has not said if he will support either measure.

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

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief