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State bypasses protections for fish, signs non-binding agreement with Omega Protein

Dead fish washed onto Virginia beaches after Omega Protein's net spills
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Dead fish washed onto Virginia beaches after Omega Protein's net spills

Environmentalists have complained about Omega Protein for decades. The company uses small airplanes to spot schools of tiny fish called menhaden, then uses boats with nets to scoop them up. Critics like Chris Moore at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation say Omega is depriving larger fish, sea birds and mammals of nutrition.

“There are many people – whether you’re a recreational angler, a birder, whether you’re someone who likes to go paddle and see marine mammals— that all have a stake in our menhaden fishery,” he says.

And last year several spills of dead fish hurt tourism on the coast – with menhaden and red drum washing onto beaches.

“Red Drum are a pretty iconic species in Chesapeake Bay," Moore notes. "They’re a favorite of recreational anglers, and the size of red drum that washed up –you know, big fish over 40 inches -- are really important from a reproductive standpoint.”

Still legislative efforts to ban net fishing, to sharply restrict Omega’s catch or to fund more research on fish stocks have failed. The company hired four lobbyists in advance of the last legislative session and made more than $750,000 in campaign contributions during the state’s last election cycle.

“Omega has a tremendous lobbying position in the legislature," Moore contends. "They are very effective in making sure that the legislation that they don’t like does not pass the legislature in any given year.”

He adds that lawmakers are also mindful of the fact that Omega’s processing plant is in the Northern Neck.

“We still do have that one reduction plant in Virginia. There are a number of jobs tied to it, and it’s in a pretty economically depressed area.”

But with public pressure growing, the firm signed a non-binding agreement to limit possible damage to tourism – agreeing to stay at least a mile off shore in some parts of the Bay and to suspend fishing when the beaches are busiest.

“There are things in there like not fishing on Saturdays and Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That’s something that they haven’t done for years anyway," Moore says.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation will continue to press for more data on how to better manage menhaden in what Moore calls the epicenter of that fishery, and he described Omega’s net spills as an alarming waste of a precious food source for striped bass, dolphins, osprey and other wildlife.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief