For the second time in less than a month, Omega Protein, the industrial menhaden harvester, has littered the beaches along Virginia’s Eastern Shore with Atlantic menhaden (bunker), wasting this important forage fish by the thousands. This latest mishap also killed hundreds of large red drum, a popular sportfish that became entangled in the operation’s net as bycatch.
Preliminary counts reported to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) indicate that as much as 12,000 pounds of dead 30- to 50-pound redfish had to be dealt with on the water and along nearby beaches. Given red drum biology, it is highly likely those big, mature fish were in the Bay and had targeted a menhaden school to build up energy for spawning out the next generation of this popular gamefish.
Canadian-owned Omega Protein acknowledged that its contractor, Ocean Harvesters, based out of Reedville, Virginia, was responsible for the July 25th mishap that resulted in dead fish washing up on the beaches of Pickett Harbor, Kiptopeke State Park, and Sunset Beach. The company also accepted responsibility for a July 5th net failure that spilled thousands of dead menhaden along Silver Beach, another popular vacation destination about 15 miles to the north.
These net spills are yet another reminder of why the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) and American Sportfishing Association (ASA) are part of a broad coalition of local, regional and national recreational fishing and boating groups that have asked Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to stop the use of industrial purse seine gear in a major portion of the Chesapeake Bay “until science demonstrates” that it will not negatively affect the estuary’s ecosystem. Stopping the use of purse seine gear in the Chesapeake Bay would bring consistency with Maryland’s prohibition of the gear enacted nearly a century ago.
These latest net spills are far from the first time Omega Protein has proven itself to be a bad corporate neighbor in Chesapeake Bay. Last September, Omega Protein nets tore on two separate incidents, forcing the company to dump more than 400,000 dead menhaden into Hampton Roads waters. In December of 2019, Virginia was found to be ‘out of compliance’ by the U.S. Department of Commerce after Omega Protein knowingly violated the 51,000-metric ton Chesapeake Bay harvest cap on menhaden, a cautionary limit on harvest agreed to by coast-wide fishery managers. Moreover, Cooke Inc., the parent company of Omega Protein, has paid nearly $13 million in penalties for violations related to the environment, safety, government contracting, and finances, according to the Good Jobs First website.
In response to the 2021 net spills, the VMRC Menhaden Advisory Committee considered the development of a buffer, or area closure, to minimize the possibility of snagging large purse seine nets in nearshore shallow waters, while also providing protection for recreational species that frequent nearshore habitats. Unfortunately, the proposal did not move forward because it was opposed by the Omega Protein representative who cited net spills as a rare, infrequent event that was not in need of a solution.
This year’s spills have shown that these occurrences are not as rare as previously thought, and all eyes are on Virginia’s fisheries managers and leadership in Richmond to curb this wasteful action.
Simply put, the publicly-held resources of the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the sportfishing, boating, and tourism economy deserve more than promises from an international fisheries juggernaut.
(Mike Leonard is vice-president of government affairs at the American Sportfishing Association and is a member of VMRC’s Menhaden Advisory Member, while David Sikorski is the executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland and chairs the Maryland Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission).