Omega smokestack

The old smokestack is now a monument at Omega’s Reedville site.

REEDVILLE—Atlantic Coast commissioners who protect fishery resources voted Thursday to postpone indefinitely an enforcement action against Virginia, the coast’s biggest harvester of menhaden, for refusing to comply with a cap on harvests of the fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

The move averts the uncomfortable decision for the commissioners on the Menhaden Management Board to recommend that Virginia be punished. One of the options included a federal moratorium on fishing for Atlantic menhaden in Virginia’s state waters, a main fishing ground for Omega Protein Corp. The vote for a delay was 17–1, with Pennsylvania voting no.

Unlike other states, Virginia’s legislature oversees the menhaden fishery. It has refused to pass legislation confirming the annual cap of 51,000 metric tons put into place last year by ASMFC. Bills failed again during this session.

“Nor do I anticipate, based on the history that I’ve seen throughout, it occurring any time in the near future,” Virginia’s representative, Steve Bowman, who heads the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, told the board, while thanking members for their understanding.

There were two main factors in Thursday’s decision. Omega’s harvests have not exceeded the Chesapeake Bay cap since 2012, according to Bowman, who relied on data provided by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service that monitors the company. Another is a lack of science.

The scientific data available to commissioners is old and in the process of being updated. The commission is anticipating the latest coastal population assessment of menhaden and a report, due out next year, on predator species such as striped bass and bald eagles, that rely on the fish in diet. Those are a main concern of anglers and conservationists.

Commissioners have been debating the sustainability of the menhaden fishery for more than a decade. The small fish runs in large schools up and down the coast as well as into the Chesapeake Bay.

The fish, often called bunker, is sold by local fishermen as bait to catch blue crabs. The fact that the fish are always on the move makes it difficult to pinpoint the size of the population.

By considering the species that prey on them, scientists say they will have a better picture of the population. This is referred to as ecosystem management and would help commissioners determine if they should increase limits on commercial harvests.

But neither report directly studies the Chesapeake Bay and the new data will be used in planning for changes that may take six or more years.

Older data, coupled with factors such as climate change, have stymied commissioners’ management decisions. Virginia waters are warming at a rate faster than other regions of the Atlantic Coast, and could be pushing menhaden and other fish to cooler, deeper waters to the north.

The coast is dotted with the crumbling smokestacks of rendering factories from when menhaden fishing was industrialized and booming after World War II. But over-fishing led to a population decline.

Omega operates the last reduction fishery on the East Coast in Reedville. It was purchased in 2017 by Cooke Inc., a fishery company based in New Brunswick, Canada. Cooke operates seven manufacturing facilities located in the U.S., Canada and Europe and contracts with Alpha VesselCo, which owns 30 vessels that harvest menhaden off the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

During the season, Omega ships, aided by spotter planes, use large purse seine nets to harvest menhaden. Though considered inedible by humans, the fish is harvested by the metric tons by Omega and rendered for its oils and byproducts that are turned into a variety of products, including food for farm-raised fish and oil supplements for people.

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 fishes about two-thirds of the season in the Atlantic. The other third is spent in the Chesapeake Bay. In 2016, their Chesapeake Bay harvest was less than 45,000 metric tons.

“This harvest was largely in the Mid-Atlantic Region off of the coasts of Virginia and Maryland,” said Omega spokesman Ben Landry. “We fished with seven vessels in 2018 and plan to do so again in 2019.”

The company employs approximately 260 employees in Reedville. Landings in 2015 along the Atlantic coast were 436 million pounds, valued at more than $41.4 million.

Last summer, New Yorkers were appalled by the sight of Omega ships fishing off their coast in federal waters. The state responded earlier this week with legislation banning the use of purse seine nets, like those used by Omega, in state waters.

The seriousness of the meeting was not without levity. In discussing the fate of Virginia, Rhode Island ASMFC representative Eric Reid said he supported Virginia’s commissioners.

“We could find the Virginia legislature out of compliance because they’re out of compliance. As far as our fellow commissioners, which one of them might be governor in the next couple of days, I prefer to support them in their efforts.”

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