On December 19, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross officially found the state of Virginia out of compliance after foreign-owned Omega Protein willfully violated the fishing cap on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.

In accordance with his finding, the Secretary has declared a moratorium on the Atlantic menhaden fisheries in Virginia waters, effective June 17, 2020. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), in order to avert the moratorium, the Commonwealth of Virginia must effectively implement and enforce the cap prior to June 17.

“I am grateful for the Secretary’s support of the Commission’s fisheries management process and, in particular, our efforts to manage Atlantic menhaden, an important forage species, in a precautionary manner,” stated ASMFC Chair Patrick C. Keliher of Maine. “The Secretarial backstop is a key provision of the Atlantic Coastal Act.”

In a letter from NOAA Fisheries back to ASFMC upholding the non-compliance findings, it was stated that “NOAA Fisheries also finds that this management measure is necessary for the conservation of the menhaden resource. The best available information shows that menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay are an important component of the overall health of the stock, and further that their role as forage for predator species in the Chesapeake Bay is critical to the marine environment.” The letter explains that the June closure was selected “to give Virginia the time necessary for its legislature to bring these regulations back into compliance.”

“U.S. Commerce Secretary Ross’ decision to hold Omega Protein accountable for their actions demonstrates clear conservation leadership to the sportfishing and boating industry and anglers along the Atlantic Coast,” said Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA). “This decision comes at a critical time because menhaden’s top predator, Atlantic striped bass, is currently in poor condition and the Chesapeake Bay is the primary spawning and nursery area for the species.”

“Implementing responsible conservation practices across all fisheries is essential to the long-term wellbeing of marine ecosystems and we thank Secretary Ross for doing just that by swiftly addressing menhaden overfishing in the Chesapeake Bay,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA). “Healthy and sustainable forage fish and sportfish stocks are equally important to the recreational boating and fishing community and this decision is a major step toward protecting and rebuilding both of these critical populations.”

In a press release issued by ASA and NMMA along with several other recreational fishing and conservation organizations, it was stated that tens of thousands of recreational anglers, dozens of businesses and organizations, and nine Governors along the east coast, including Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, had all requested that the Secretary take action on this issue. The groups also cited a recent scientific study which stated that menhaden reduction fishing contributes to a nearly 30% decline in striped bass numbers, while also noting that striped bass fishing contributes $7.8 billion in overall gross domestic product (GDP) to the Atlantic coastal economy along the Atlantic coast.

The Secretary’s ruling is the result of a federal non-compliance review from the ASMFC following Virginia’s decision not to adopt the Commission’s fishery management provision further lowering the cap on menhaden reduction harvests in the Chesapeake Bay. In response, Omega Protein, which was purchased by the Canadian conglomerate Cooke Aquaculture in 2017 for approximately $500 million, has stated its plans work with both the ASMFC and the Commonwealth of Virginia to lift the moratorium and bring the fishery back into compliance.

The last time that ASMFC had sent a federal non-compliance rule to NOAA Fisheries for a final decision was in 2017 when the state of New Jersey set a size, season and bag limit on summer flounder based on a conservation equivalency argument, rather than being lumped in with Connecticut and New York at a 19-inch size limit. Many environmental groups and individuals hostile to New Jersey anglers had expressed concern that the Commerce Department’s siding with New Jersey in 2017 would set a bad precedent when it came time for decisions like this one regarding Omega and menhaden.

However, what those groups failed to accept is that former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and his administration were willing to yield four weeks of available fishing season (compared to Connecticut and New York) in order to retain its 18-inch size limit on summer flounder, whereas Virginia’s own governor had personally requested the Commerce Department’s intervention on the bunker situation.

“Given these actions by an international company, imposing a moratorium on the menhaden harvest is the most appropriate way to bring about a shift to responsible management of menhaden,” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said in a November 20 letter to Secretary Ross urging him to impose a moratorium

The ASMFC’s next meeting will be held from February 4-6, 2020 at the Westin Crystal City at 1800 S. Eads Street in Arlington, VA where it’s expected that striped bass options for 2020 will be nearly finalized.