Two bills offered on the first day of the 2010 Virginia General Assembly session would take away the assembly's authority to manage menhaden and give it to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
The commission manages all other saltwater fisheries in the state, such as blue crabs, striped bass and oysters. But the legislature has long maintained authority to regulate catches of menhaden, which supports a major commercial fishery that provides about 250 jobs in Reedville, on Virginia's Northern Neck peninsula.
The bills filed by Sen. Ralph S. Northam, D-Norfolk, and Del. John A. Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, said their intent was to make fisheries management more efficient by unifying it within the VMRC, and eliminating the problem that management decisions can only be made during the two months the assembly is in session, making it difficult to respond to any emergency.
"We need to make sure the VMRC is able to do its job by addressing all of the organisms in the Bay," said Cosgrove, the immediate past chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel representing state legislatures.
Environmentalists and sport fishing groups endorsed the bill. Many contend that, despite stock assessments showing the overall health of the small, oily fish is healthy, menhaden are overfished in the Bay, leaving too few to feed striped bass and other predators, or filter algae from the water.
Such a transfer of authority has come up before, most recently in 1994, when it failed to pass. Ben Landry, a spokesman for Texas-based Omega Protein, which operates the Reedville fishing fleet, said he saw no need to change the regulatory regime.
"The current system has served the commonwealth and the resource fine, and this bill would simply add additional programs to the VMRC, which has had its budget already cut by 17 percent," he said.
Virginia is the only state that has an active industrial menhaden fishing operation on the East Coast. Most states, though, allow smaller menhaden fisheries that catch menhaden for bait, including operations within the Chesapeake Bay.
Regardless of the fate of the bills, the General Assembly must deal with one menhaden-related issue this session. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates species that migrate along the coast, last fall made a proposal to extend the current cap on menhaden catches in the Chesapeake through 2013.
If the legislature fails to pass a bill complying with the ASMFC action, the state would be out of compliance and could face sanctions.