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Federal government threatens to shut down Chesapeake Bay menhaden fishery if company doesn’t comply with quotas

The nation’s secretary of commerce said Thursday he will shut down the Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden fishery if the company that accounts for the vast majority of it doesn’t comply with federal quotas by June 17.

Federal fisheries managers recently found Virginia “out of compliance” for allowing the company, Omega Protein Corp., to surpass the bay quota.

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Secretary Wilbur Ross issued a statement stating that the Canadian-owned company “willfully violated the fishing cap on menhaden inside the Chesapeake Bay, continuing to fish after the federally-ordered quota of 51,000 tons had been met.”

Conservationists cheered the news.

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“There have been conservationists, conservation organizations and anglers working on this for more than 20 years in an effort to protect the fishery,” said Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a conference call. “This is the largest conservation victory in that effort.”

Menhaden are a small, oily fish that Omega uses to make pet food, human supplements and — since being purchased by a Canadian company — to feed farm-raised salmon. The fish also are filter feeders that help clean the bay and are an important species at the bottom of the food chain, providing forage for striped bass and other large fish.

Though there is no industrial-scale menhaden fishery in Maryland, the fish caught in Virginia waters are still a food source for striped bass and other migratory fish that spend much of the year in Maryland waters.

The pending shutdown follows a letter sent to Ross by the governors of nine states from Virginia to Maine — including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — urging the secretary to find the commonwealth out of compliance and to threaten to shut down the fishery.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration is urging that state’s legislature to step in. Menhaden are the only saltwater fish in Virginia waters governed by the state’s General Assembly instead of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

“We thank Secretary [Wilbur] Ross and Assistant Administrator [Chris] Oliver for taking this opportunity to protect the Chesapeake Bay and the livelihoods of all those who depend on it, including the workers at Omega Protein," said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. "We believe strongly that a science-based approach that accounts for all fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem is appropriate, and we look forward to working with the General Assembly to apply such an approach to the menhaden fishery.”

Omega this year caught more than 35 million pounds over the bay quota, citing several reasons for its continued harvest, including weather that was too bad to allow its crews to fish in the ocean and the fact that state legislators never adopted the federal quota.

The company even publicly declared that it would fish beyond the federally-mandated limit. Omega long has complained that quotas aren’t based on science.

“Omega Protein is disappointed in today’s decision by the Secretary of Commerce to impose a moratorium on Virginia’s menhaden fishery,” the company said in a statement. “This is the first time that a moratorium has been placed on a fishery that is not overfished and is healthy by every measure.”

Omega did not say whether it now will begin complying with the quota.

Recreational anglers cheered the commerce department’s decision.

“It’s nice to finally get some recognition for the issue and to see something get done to punish the company,” said Steve Epstein, a fisherman and conservation activist who has long sought tighter control over Omega. "We hope the bay cap can be honored in the future and we look forward to everybody getting to fish in the bay. ... This is going to entirely change the way the company does business.”

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