by Megan Schiffres
WASHINGTON—U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross on December 19 indicated he will impose a moratorium on menhaden fishing in Virginia waters if the Commonwealth doesn’t comply with federal quotas.
The moratorium will take effect on June 17, 2020, unless the Commonwealth successfully reduces its fishing of menhaden to under its 51,000 metric ton limit by that time. The yearly harvest cap on menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay was established in 2017 by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a coalition of 15 states including Virginia which formed to coordinate and manage fishery resources across the Eastern shore of the U.S.
The Secretary’s decision concurred with the findings of the ASMFC, which found Virginia in “out of compliance” after Omega Protein in Reedville announced in October it had exceeded the Commonwealth’s limit on menhaden fishing by about 30%.
“I am grateful for the Secretary’s support of the Commission’s fisheries management process and, in particular, our efforts to manage Atlantic menhaden, an important forage species, in a precautionary manner,” stated ASMFC chairman Patrick C. Keliher. “The Secretarial backstop is a key provision of the Atlantic Coastal Act.”
Representatives of Omega Protein have argued that limits on menhaden fishing in the bay are not supported by scientific study and instead are politically motivated.
“While Omega Protein remains disappointed by the decision, and disagrees with it, the company does appreciate the agency’s analysis and ensuing decision to delay implementation of a moratorium on the reduction fishery in state waters until June 17, 2020. This provides time for Virginia to comply with the ISMFP, and thereby provides an opportunity for the moratorium to be rescinded before it is implemented,” said Omega Protein director of public affairs Ben Landry.
Menhaden stocks across the Eastern shore as a whole are not overfished, according to the 2017 Stock Assessment Update by the ASMFC. However, the commission holds the management of the bay’s menhaden population to a higher standard than other commission members, in order to preserve its environment which acts as a nursery ground for many species in the region.
As filter feeders, menhaden represent a critical part of restoring and maintaining the health of the bay’s ecosystem. These small, herring-like fish are capable of filtering up to seven gallons of water a minute, and a decline in their population could impact both the water quality and the diversity of the bay because menhaden are important food sources for other species in the region, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.
The guidelines for management of Atlantic menhaden are enforced under article three of the ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Plan. According to the plan, the amount of menhaden harvested above the cap in any given year will be deducted from the next year’s allowable harvest. As long as the Commonwealth reduces its menhaden fishing in 2020 by at least the same amount it went over the cap this year, the moratorium will not take effect in June.
by Megan Schiffres