Last week, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) rejected a citizen-led petition supported by thousands of recreational anglers and numerous conservation groups that would have moved forward for consideration of a proposal to limit the depths at which industrial scale menhaden purse seine nets could be set in shallower waters in Virginia’s part of Chesapeake Bay.
By a 5-1 vote, the VMRC rejected the petition. Surprisingly, the motion was made by the recreational representative of the VMRC. These nets are massive, stretching to nearly one-third of a mile long and deploying to depths of up to 80 feet. CCA Virginia joined numerous fishing and conservation groups in support of the petition, and Capt. Chris Dollar, the Chesapeake conservation consultant for CCA, testified before the VMRC.
The Bay’s reduction fishery – operated by Omega Protein, a subsidiary of global conglomerate Cooke Seafoods – uses these nets to remove as much as 112 million pounds of menhaden from the Bay each year. This vital forage fish is then processed into several products, including fish meal pellets the company uses for its aquaculture operations throughout the world.
On occasion, Omega’s nets have corralled and killed thousands of pounds of
valuable forage and game fish. In July 2022, Omega claimed responsibility for two ‘net spills.’ More than 12,000 pounds of large, breeding sized red drum and thousands of menhaden were killed as a result of the second event. The massive nets also put at risk valuable habitat by disrupting and sometimes destroying benthic communities, a keystone part of the Bay’s already fragile ecosystem.
Last spring, the Commonwealth of Virginia entered into a memorandum of
understanding with Omega Protein. Unfortunately, this watered down
agreement is voluntary and from a legal standpoint is unenforceable. As a result, it undermines the many sacrifices made by the recreational fishing community to protect and conserve game fish and the forage they require for health and abundance.
While CCA Virginia appreciates the serious workload assigned to the Commission, respectfully, this decision to not further consider the petition’s merits is short-sighted. The request is inline with both the Commonwealth’s mandate to protect public natural resources and the purse seine industry’s pledge to work collaboratively with Chesapeake stakeholders.
Despite encouraging progress, the Chesapeake remains impaired, especially its keystone habitats such as oysters and sea grasses. Both are vitally important to the abundance and health of forage fish and game fish. CCA Virginia remains committed to working with our partners and the Commonwealth to better protect and restore habitats to ensure a brighter future for all fisheries and the anglers that use them.