Amid efforts to reverse a troubling decline in the Atlantic striped bass population, there is a new reason some are worried about the species.
Omega Protein Corp., a Canadian company that makes food and health products, has signaled that it plans to defy a quota set by interstate fisheries regulators on the harvest of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.
The small, oily fish help form the base of the bay’s food chain and are a significant source of food for rockfish and other bay predators.
The company said the move is its only choice, with what it called a relative abundance of menhaden in the Chesapeake and tough fishing conditions elsewhere. It defended its decision by calling the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s menhaden cap — reduced by 41% in 2017 — “an arbitrary figure."
But others, including bay advocates and fishermen, say Omega’s move comes at a challenging time for striped bass and other species that depend on menhaden, and called on the commission or Virginia officials to step in.
There is no industrial-scale menhaden fishery in Maryland, but what happens to the fish in Virginia waters has echoes to the north. Maryland portions of the Chesapeake are vital breeding grounds for Atlantic striped bass and other migratory fish.
“It’s unacceptable to undermine the food web,” said David Sikorski, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland.
A fisheries commission spokeswoman said the agency will discuss the matter at an Oct. 28 meeting, and may initiate a process that, at its most extreme, could lead to a temporary ban on menhaden fishing in Virginia waters.
“I think they have a difficult decision ahead,” commission spokeswoman Tina Berger said.
Omega said it is operating under a cap of about 83,000 metric tons of menhaden harvest, written into Virginia law. The menhaden fishery is 140 years old in that state, and when the Atlantic fisheries commission in 2017 cut the Chesapeake menhaden quota to 51,000 metric tons, the industry convinced Virginia lawmakers to reject it and set its own cap.
Conflict did not arise from that difference previously because the menhaden catch in the bay didn’t exceed the lower threshold. But this year, weeks before menhaden season’s end this month, federal fisheries officials told Omega it had already exceeded the new 51,000 metric ton cap by 400 tons.
“We had no intention going into the season to exceed it, and never imagined we would as we’ve been doing so much fishing just outside the Bay the past few years, but this year those fish didn’t show out there but instead showed just inside the line designating it being caught in the Bay,” said Monty Deihl, Omega’s vice president for ocean fleet services.
The Atlantic fisheries commission guides regulation of more than two dozen types of fish and shellfish, and menhaden are among the most controversial species it manages. The commission is in the process of developing a new way of assessing the menhaden population that better accounts for its role as a food source for many other creatures. A report on that assessment is expected in February.
The quantity of menhaden eaten by striped bass is unclear. A Virginia Institute of Marine Science study showed menhaden account for about 8% of what stripers eat. Other studies, though, suggest that menhaden make up about a third of their diet.
Computer modeling by a team of fisheries scientists from the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and Humboldt State University in 2017 estimated the population of striped bass is nearly 30% below where it would be if there were no commercial menhaden fishery.
Some bay advocates worry that the conflict over Omega’s catch could stress the integrity of a complex fishery management process that includes 15 states.
“Interstate fisheries management is always something that’s tough, but it works when all the parties work together,” said Chris Moore, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “This is clearly an example of one entity not wanting to work together.”
Berger said that while the commission will likely discuss Omega’s menhaden harvest at its meeting next month, members may choose to delay any action until the population assessment is completed in February.
In the meantime, Maryland officials are expected to hold public hearings this fall before deciding how to impose new limits on striped bass fishing before the 2020 season. The fisheries commission has directed Atlantic states to reduce the catch because striped bass are being overfished.
The Daily Press contributed to this article.