The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission warned Virginia in May that the state could soon face action for failing to adopt new menhaden harvest limits established late last year — a process that could lead to a complete closing of its menhaden fishery.Unlike other species that are managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, menhaden regulations are established by the state’s General Assembly. (Dave Harp)

Specifically, Virginia has not established a 51,000 metric ton harvest cap for menhaden caught within the Chesapeake Bay by the Omega Protein reduction fishery based in Reedville, VA.

Last fall, the ASMFC increased the allowable coastwide catch of menhaden by 8 percent, but changed how it was distributed among the coast, which slightly decreased the limit for Virginia. The state is able to make up for the reduced catch through a system that allows it to acquire unused allocations from other states. But as part of its action, the commission also lowered the cap on how much of the state’s total harvest could come out of the Bay.

The Bay cap only affects Omega’s reduction fishery, which catches large amounts of menhaden and “reduces” the fish into other products, such as fish oil supplements and animal feed. The Bay cap does not affect operations that catch menhaden for bait in other fisheries.

Unlike other species that are managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, menhaden regulations are established by the state’s General Assembly. A bill introduced this year to implement the new limit was supported by Gov. Ralph Northam, but the General Assembly never acted on it. 

The bill was also supported by many conservation groups that believe too many menhaden are harvested, leaving too little food for predators in the Bay, such as striped bass.

Omega opposed the bill, citing a series of studies over the years that have failed to show that menhaden harvests are hurting other species.

But the failure to act leaves the old Bay quota of 87,216 metric tons in place and puts the state out of compliance with legally binding limits established by the ASMFC, a panel of state fishery managers that sets fishing limits for species that migrate along the East Coast.

Virginia officials say it’s unlikely a regulation will be in place before the ASFMC meets again in August, but they plan to send a letter to the commission signaling their intent to work with the industry to keep Bay harvests within the prescribed level this year and allow the General Assembly to take up the measure in January.

Omega has not caught 51,000 metric tons of menhaden in the Bay in several years, as an increasing portion of its catch comes from the ocean, but Omega has worried that the new cap would limit its ability to put more focus on the Chesapeake if conditions change.

Because the cap is not likely to be exceeded before the ASMFC meets again in August, its Menhaden Board in May decided to postpone any final decision on the issue.

If the ASMFC finds Virginia out of compliance, the commission would notify the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who would have 30 days to review the issue and could take further action, including imposing a moratorium on menhaden harvests in Virginia state waters.

Historically, the Commerce Department has supported the ASMFC, but last year Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sided with New Jersey in a dispute with the commission over the catch of summer flounder.