REEDVILLE—Maybe it was the oxygen-starved waters in the Chesapeake Bay, or maybe it was storms off the Atlantic coast that brought so many schools of menhaden to the mouth of the Bay.
Scientists still don’t have a complete understanding of menhaden, a fish that’s rarely eaten, but has so many other uses that spotter planes and a fleet of ships chase them each season.
Storms kept the East Coast’s largest harvester of the fish—Canadian-owned Omega Protein Corp., based in Reedville—from safely putting in their two 40-foot steel purse seining boats that launch from ships in the Atlantic during. So, Omega followed the fish to the mouth of the Bay.
Then, earlier this month, the company reported to state fisheries managers that it had exceeded the Bay harvest cap established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2017.
“For whatever reason, they are inside the Bay this year. The majority of fish were caught inside the bay in May and June,” said Omega spokesman Ben Landry. “These schools have just been in a greater preponderance inside the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel as opposed to the last couple of years, which was outside of the Bay Bridge Tunnel, maybe hugging the coast of the Eastern Shore.”
Landry said weather events dictate fishing, and during the past few years, it seems to him there have been more named storms and more frequent weather events, making it unsafe for the purse seine vessels to fish.
“So if weather is inclement in the ocean, our only option at that point is do we catch fish in the Chesapeake Bay or do we just tie up at the dock as we try to conserve the state cap?” he said. “We made the decision that we were going to harvest these fish and make sure that our employees continued to get their paychecks every week.”
Despite its recent certification by the Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainable fishery, Omega doesn’t have a stellar environmental record. In August, the Securities Exchange Commission called it “a repeat offender of the Clean Water Act” in an administrative proceeding against the company. Felony violations occurred in 2008 and 2011 in Reedville and at a larger operation in Louisiana in 2014 and 2016.
Back in 2010, when accepting a $10 million federal loan, Omega agreed to covenants that require compliance with federal environmental laws. In Omega’s 2014 annual report and three quarterly reports filed with the SEC in 2015, the company falsely represented that it was in compliance with all of its federal loan covenants, including those requiring compliance with federal environmental laws, according to the SEC.
In January 2017, Omega pleaded guilty to criminal charges under the CWA for violating the 2013 plea agreement, and admitted to discharging pollutants at its Louisiana facility.
In August, without denying or admitting to SEC findings, Omega agreed to pay a civil penalty of $400,000. In January, Omega paid $1 million in a settlement with the Justice Department to resolve the same allegations under the False Claims Act.
Two years ago, Omega was purchased for about $500 million by Cooke Aquaculture Inc. Based in Canada, some considered it the world’s largest independent seafood company, with billions of dollars in annual revenue.
In Reedville, menhaden is harvested and rendered for its oils and byproducts, which are turned into a variety of products, including food for farm-raised fish and oil supplements for people.
Since 2012, landings in the Chesapeake Bay have not exceeded 51,000 metric tons, until now.
When storms disrupt the water, Landry said it takes a week or so for the fish to “re-school” or become visible to spotter pilots.
Traditionally, Omega might bypass large schools of fish in the Bay and head out to the Atlantic. But more frequent storms have changed that, he said.
“If you know you only have one, two, three fishing days, you’re not going to pass up these giant schools to go look for others in the ocean.”
Last year’s harvests by Omega were largely in the Mid-Atlantic region off of the coasts of Virginia and Maryland. Omega is allowed 85 percent of ASMFC allowable catch of 216,000 metric tons for 2019, as part of Virginia’s allocation. A rough estimate by company officials shows it normally fishes about two-thirds of the season in the Atlantic. The other third is spent in the Bay.
In 2018, Omega harvested approximately 141,000 metric tons or roughly 93 percent of the coast-wide cap. It produced 8,000 metric tons of fish oil and 46,000 metric tons of fish meal.
The cap came about from growing concern among the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission members. Officials were worried that localized depletion in the Chesapeake Bay could put a dent in the health of the menhaden population. In 2017, they asked states to sign onto a Bay cap of 51,000 metric tons. Virginia’s General Assembly refused. Menhaden is the only fish overseen by the assembly, and Omega has already donated $16,500 so far this year to mainly Republican candidates, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
ASMFC spokeswoman Tina Berger said the violation will be taken up when the committee meets in November. Commissioners have been divided on how best to manage a fish that at this point is not being overfished, but likely is important for other species that eat it.
“There are two potential paths forward. They could initiate a non-compliance finding, or they may want to wait until February, when they receive the results of two assessments we’ve been working on for a long time,” she said.
One of those assessments looks at menhaden from an ecological management standpoint, attempting to understand how predators such as bald eagles and osprey and other marine species such as striped bass rely on menhaden in their diet.
The other assessment tries to determine how many menhaden are in the Bay, as well as along the coast. It may be scientists will need the help of Omega’s spotter planes and captains to figure that out.