IF THE Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden fishery is so important, why is the management of it so chronically dysfunctional? Why is the seemingly insatiable Omega Protein Corp. allowed to pay fine after fine, but continue to ignore rules it doesn’t like? What will it take to get the company’s attention?

Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the partnership, or “interstate compact,” that sets harvest limits for 27 fisheries up and down the Atlantic Coast, officially accused Virginia of allowing Omega Protein to overfish the Bay waters for menhaden. It’s unclear what, if any, penalty will be imposed.

The fuss over this fish is largely due to its critical role in the marine food chain. Humans don’t generally consume menhaden because it is a bony, oily and generally unappetizing fish. But it is favorite meal for striped bass (rockfish) and bluefish, as well as birds such as ospreys and bald eagles, and even marine mammals like dolphins and whales.

Researchers have seen a historic correlation, for example, between the health of the menhaden fishery and striped bass numbers.

Omega Protein, which was acquired by the multi-billion-dollar company Cooke Aquaculture Inc. of New Brunswick, Canada, catches a lot of menhaden. It turns the silvery fish into fish oil, a popular dietary supplement, and fish meal, which is used in livestock food, pet food and fertilizer.

In a December 2017 press release on the deal, Cooke hinted at a new use: “The animal feed ingredients produced by Omega Protein are an important component in Cooke Aquaculture’s production of healthy Atlantic salmon, making this acquisition a strategic move that greatly enhances Cooke’s vertical integration.”

So instead of rockfish, maybe the Bay’s menhaden will be feeding farm-raised salmon in Canada.

In 2018, Omega harvested 141,000 metric tons of menhaden or about 93 percent of the Atlantic Coast-wide maximum. (A metric ton is 1,000 kilograms, which equals 2,204 pounds.) Included in that harvest is the menhaden Omega pulls from the Chesapeake Bay, which is currently capped at 51,000 metric tons by the ASMFC.

The ASMFC’s Bay cap was reduced from 87,000 metric tons in 2018 because the coastal menhaden fishery reached near historic lows in 2017. Compared to the open Atlantic, the protected Bay waters are seen as a nursery for menhaden.

Most states simply comply with the caps set by the ASMFC. In Virginia, however, the menhaden fishery is controlled by the General Assembly. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission plays an advisory role that lawmakers don’t seem to give much weight. Despite the Northam administration’s vigorous support, bipartisan legislation to lower menhaden catch limits died in Richmond. Given that menhaden is such big business in Virginia, the General Assembly doesn’t want Omega Protein encumbered by the ASMFC’s harvest limits.

In September, Omega announced matter-of-factly that it was exceeding the Bay limit of 51,000 metric tons by 16,000 metric tons—or by 31 percent. It was doing so with apparent impunity because the General Assembly had failed to codify the ASMFC’s harvest cap anyway.

Omega spokesman Ben Landry explained that the weather over the past year had made fishing in the Atlantic difficult, and that huge schools of menhaden were found at the mouth of the Bay inside the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, which marks the border between Bay and ocean. The company couldn’t pass up these fish, he said, which were just asking to be caught.

“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,” Landry said.

Maybe Omega should set up a rainy day fund for its fishermen, rather than ignore rules designed to make sure there are fish for them to catch in the future.

Omega has been in trouble before. In August, after the Securities and Exchange Commission called it “a repeat offender of the Clean Water Act” in an administrative proceeding, the company paid a $400,000 penalty.

In January, Omega paid a $1 million in a settlement with the Justice Department to resolve similar allegations under the False Claims Act. It had taken a $10 million federal loan that required adherence to certain environmental protection laws. It claimed it had, but it hadn’t.

Last Thursday, the ASMFC voted to find Virginia out of compliance for turning a blind eye to Omega’s blatant overfishing. Steve Bowman, who heads the VMRC and is one of Virginia’s three representatives on the ASMFC, supported the non-compliance finding and apologized to his fellow members for Virginia’s lack of cooperation.

The ASMFC’s finding of non-compliance would need to be enforced by the U.S. Department of Commerce. It could do anything from nothing all the way to imposing menhaden harvest limits up to a full moratorium. Based on the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce or zero-out funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, and its hands-off environmental approach generally, the “nothing” option seems most likely.

We urge Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to take significant action against Omega Protein, however, get the attention of a company that chooses to ignore the rules just because it doesn’t like them.

Richard Amrhine: 540/374-5406


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