When is enough, enough?
You tell me how a single corporation can waste tons of a critically important public resource yet not suffer any consequences. That’s essentially what happened earlier this month when the industrial menhaden harvester Omega Protein dumped its seine nets, not once but twice in one week — littering Hampton Roads waters with perhaps as much as 400,000 menhaden.
If you’re just tuning in, here is some background: Omega Protein, a foreign owned company, is the last remaining reduction operation on the Chesapeake Bay and East Coast. It sucks up a grossly disproportionate amount of these key forage fish, more than 70 percent of all menhaden harvested along the Atlantic waters.
These oily fish are ground up for heart health pills, fertilizer, and increasingly as feed for penned salmon. Omega uses spotter planes to locate massive schools of bunker, which are then corralled by boats using purse seine nets.
Tons of menhaden, and potentially any gamefish feeding on the bait balls, are hoisted onto an industrial vessel in preparation for processing.
Perhaps no other fish is as integral to the Chesapeake’s food web as menhaden. Often called the most important fish in the sea, these oily creatures — also known locally as bunker — are primary prey for many popular gamefish including rockfish (stripers), cobia, red drum, bluefish, and weakfish as well as whales and sea birds.
In years past, it’s likely similar Omega “accidents’ may have gone into the “Man that sucks but what can we do about it?” file. Since the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) now oversees the bay’s menhaden fishery, thanks to a state law that went into effect in 2020, the agency can potentially take meaningful action should Omega’s wastefulness continue.
In a September 8 letter, VMRC chief commissioner Steve Bowman put the company on notice, reminding management it is closing in on its allowable Chesapeake Bay catch, which is capped at 51,000 metric tons.
VMRC called the company’s 2021 harvest rate “troubling,” and compared it to its 2019 rate when Omega exceeded the bay cap by more than 15,000 metric tons. That 30 percent overage resulted in a moratorium imposed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, requiring a payback the next season.
Should Omega blow past the bay cap this year, the VMRC would be required to notify the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which could lead to another moratorium and possibly, and unfairly, affect pound netters who provide bait for tackle shops, crabbers, charter boat operators, and anglers.
According to published reports, Ocean Harvesters, which contracts with Omega to harvest menhaden, says they’re already at approximately 85 percent of the cap as of September 10.
VMRC also told Omega it has received 13 complaints from the public about similar fish spills by Omega since 2018, and on average an estimated 121,000 bunker per event were wasted. To me, this reinforces that this most recent waste of bunker is not simply a one-off, but a pattern of behavior.
Surprisingly, the 121.6 metric tons of menhaden Omega is estimated to have wasted earlier this month will not count against its 2021 harvest. However, the VMRC did warn Omega that should it continue to waste menhaden vis a vis “spills,” the agency may take steps to implement an amendment to the state regulation that would require that future spillages be taken out of the company’s annual quota.
That’s a lot of “what ifs,” but it is encouraging that possibility is on the record.
For decades, the Chesapeake’s angling community has urged fishery managers to take a more ecologically focused approach to menhaden management, and while many of us wish the pace was quicker, progress is happening.
Yet more is needed, such as requiring science-based catch limits that also account for predators’ forage requirements, and fully funding a study on menhaden distribution, abundance, and diversity. While we’re at it, let’s place observers on boats to collect at-sea samples from purse-seine sets.
As for Omega’s wasteful “spills,” why should they get a mulligan? If I shoot a duck that sails into the marsh, yet never made a good faith effort to retrieve that bird, then I’m guilty of wanton waste and deserve a fine.
Without better accountability, Omega Protein’s “it’s just the cost of doing business” attitude will persist, the resource will be degraded, and on-the-water conflicts between the company and the sport angling community will fester.
As stewards of the bay’s marine resources, we should not allow a private entity to continue to operate in Chesapeake waters in such a disruptive and disrespectful manner.
Through Sept. 30: Teal Season, 6 teal per day, possession limit of 18. Shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.
Through Oct. 31: The Great Chesapeake Invasives Count. Register at ccamd.org.
Through Dec. 10: Resident striper season. One (1) rockfish per angler, unless on a charter boat that uses electronic reporting. Circle hooks mandatory. Check DNR website for details.
Oct. 9-17: Rod and Reef Slam Fishing Tournament. Fish on more than 100 restoration reefs on the Eastern Shore and Western shore sites. Sponsored by CBF and CCA-MD. Visit CBF.org to register.
Oct. 16: Free State Fly Fishers’ Hands-On Session, Joe Bruce on, “mini sink-tips for fly lines.”
Oct. 16–Oct. 23: 1st split, duck season. Six bird limit, see DNR website for species. New This Year —Duck Season Zones have been established. The Eastern Duck Season Zone: Anne Arundel, Calvert, Caroline, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Harford, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Saint Mary’s, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico, Worcester counties.
Nov. 6: Youth, Veteran and Military Waterfowl Hunting Days. Also Feb. 5, 2022.
Nov. 6: 15th Annual Fish For A Cure Tournament. Boat registration includes t-shirts, Deadline to register is October 30th.
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