Back in July, pictures began making the rounds on social media of what appeared to be another net spill by the increasingly unpopular and controversial Omega Protein. To make matters worse, this spill involved an unknown number of large red drum discarded along with the thousands of menhaden. Omega Protein is the largest participant in the commercial menhaden fishery on the Atlantic Coast–mostly reducing their catch into fish meal and oil. Menhaden are regularly labeled “the most important fish in the sea,” because of their role as both an essential forage fish, sustaining species like striped bass, red drum, bluefin tuna, whales, dolphins, and ospreys, and as filter feeders. They’re even capable of filtering seven gallons of water per minute gallons of water per day! Today, however, one state and one corporation are removing millions of pounds of Menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership wants that fishery held accountable.

Menhaden management is complex. One state, Virginia, is allocated 78.7 percent of the total coastwise quota, which is 194,000 metric tons. So, Virginia is allowed to catch more than 150,000 metric tons of menhaden, which translates into more than 335 million pounds. Well, Omega routinely fishes in the Chesapeake Bay, removing millions of pounds of this essential forage. species from he nation’s largest estuary and nursery for many important species such as striped bass and red drum.

Just this summer, Omega has been responsible for two net spills, leaving thousands of  fish washed along shores around the Chesapeake Bay. The most recent net spill occurred on July 25th near Virginia’s Kiptopeke State Park and resulted in an unconfirmed amount of adult red drum and menhaden washed ashore.

Omega is the only remaining reduction fishery operation on the Atlantic coast, and Virginia is the only accommodating state. Other Atlantic states abandoned this industry over the years. Yet, now Omega persecutes menhaden populations with tactical precision, employing spotter planes, dozens of large fishing vessels, and purse seine nets (net length is about 1,000-1,400 ft, and net depth is from 65-90 ft, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

According to NOAA and ASMFC, there is very little bycatch in the Menhaden fishery–less than one percent. However, two concerns remain: there are no observers to monitor potential bycatch required and in a nearly 430 million pound fishery (194 metric tons) and one half a percent of bycatch is 21.5 million pounds. No matter how diligently Omega operates they will incidentally encounter non-target species, and given the sheer volume of this fishery, that can add up.

While ASMFC has implemented a harvest cap in the Bay and ecological reference points (considering menhaden’s ecosystem role for management) are under development and the most recent 2022 stock assessment update concluded that the coastwide stock is not overfished or experiencing overfishing, many organizations are concerned about the damage being done to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Specifically, they’re concerned about ‘localized depletion’ in the Bay, which is the idea that Omega is removing too many menhaden, thus harming species in the bay reliant on this cornerstone forage species. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is leading this effort, along with other groups such as the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, and is now asking Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to regulate Omega’s menhaden operation out of the Chesapeake Bay’s jurisdictional waters until the science can prove that localized depletion is not happening.

Pictures from Omega’s clean-up

In recent years, Omega has attained super-villain status in the Bay’s watershed. Images of massive vessels quite literally vacuuming up millions of pounds of menhaden spur an emotional response, especially as many of the Bay’s fisheries are struggling. And, these recent pictures of beaches covered with dead menhaden and red drum add more fuel to the fire. But the fact remains that the best available science finds the Menhaden stock to be healthy–but that does not disprove the idea that Omega is harming the Bay.

Time will tell whether this petition can influence the Youngkin administration to prioritize the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem over the interests of a singular industrial fishing operation (that is Canadian-owned). One point of relevant information was the Governor’s appointment of former US Department of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the VA Department of Natural Resources, which now has management authority of Menhaden. Wheeler’s appointment was ultimately blocked due to his poor environmental record during his years in the Trump administration, but now Wheeler has been tapped to lead Virginia’s Office of Regulatory Management.

Youngkin may soon start to feel the pressure from the thousands of concerned stakeholders concerned about Omega’s impact on the Chesapeake Bay and question the continued utility of a singular industrial fishing operation. But one thing is for sure, Omega must be held accountable for the most recent net spill. Charter captains, private anglers, local communities benefit from adult red drum, which are protected by a narrow slot limit, and abundant menhaden populations–yet it remains to be seen whether Omega will be penalized.

Pictures from Christine Snook who was on the beach where the net spill washed ashore.

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