By Stefanie Jackson – Things are getting fishier in Northampton County, with residents this week reporting another commercial menhaden spill, the third this month, and this time the evidence washed up on the beach at Kiptopeke State Park.
Steve Atkinson, a member of the Facebook group “Menhaden – Little Fish, Big Deal!” told the group Monday evening that Omega Protein, the corporation responsible for the menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, may have been behind yet another net spill.
By Tuesday, photos and videos of thousands of dead fish on Kiptopeke beach and beyond were cropping up on Facebook, and a professional cleanup crew arrived to begin removing the debris.
The dead fish included both menhaden and red drum. Locals also saw grasses washed up on the beach that may have been pulled up by a fishing net dragging across the bottom of the bay.
Omega Protein, which is owned by Canadian company Cooke Inc., admitted in a July 26 press release that a vessel of fishing partner Ocean Harvesters experienced a “rare and unexpected encounter with a school of red drum” the day before.
In the press release, Omega Protein explained the process for catching menhaden, small filter-feeding fish related to herring, which are used as bait or for producing fertilizer or animal feed. Menhaden also are used to make fish oil supplements that some doctors recommend for their anti-inflammatory properties.
The process is called “reduction fishing” because the menhaden, which are not a suitable food for source humans, are reduced or processed to make other products.
Pilots who are trained to identify various species of fish from the air fly planes over the area to be fished and direct vessels to any schools of menhaden that they see. A pilot who spots a school of game fish will direct fishing vessels away from that location.
The menhaden are surrounded with a net called a purse seine, a process called “making a set.”
An Ocean Harvesters vessel had made a set on Monday about one mile offshore of Kiptopeke State Park, but as the fish were brought onboard, the captain noticed a group of red drum in the net and immediately instructed the crew to open the net and release the fish, the press release stated.
According to Virginia Administrative Code 4VAC20-1400-40, it is unlawful for any person fishing commercially with any type of gear to possess more than five red drum.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission enforces the regulation, which was pointed out on Facebook by Del. Tim Anderson, a Republican who represents Virginia’s 83rd district, including parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
Due to redistricting, Anderson is now looking to unseat fellow Republican, Del. Rob Bloxom, who represents the 100th district, including parts of Norfolk and the whole Eastern Shore, in an upcoming election.
Anderson took the July 25 commercial fish spill as an opportunity to set himself apart from Bloxom, who voted against House Bill 1448 in 2020, which was passed along with an identical Senate bill and signed into law by then-Gov. Ralph Northam.
The new law transferred the responsibility to manage Virginia’s menhaden fishery from the General Assembly to VMRC.
Anderson claimed on Facebook that Bloxom “says when one Canadian owned company pulls 100,000,000 menhaden fish out of the Bay annually, the basic food chain fish for striped bass, that fact has nothing to do with the decline of striped bass and other predator fish.”
But Bloxom noted on Wednesday that according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which was formed by 15 states and chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1942 to manage fishery resources, menhaden are not currently being overfished.
In 2019, Omega Protein exceeded the commission’s menhaden catch limit of 51,000 metric tons just before emergency legislation was passed in early 2020 to give authority over the menhaden fishery to VMRC.
Of the states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay Virginia is the only one to allow reduction fishing, but Bloxom said he has not seen scientific evidence to support banning the practice.
“I know the spills are ugly. I know they stink. This is not the first time this has happened, and … I get calls every time. A lot of people on the Eastern Shore, they just hate Omega – despise them – and I get that,” Bloxom said.
“Show me the science … and then if they (menhaden fishing vessels) need to be in the ocean, fine,” he said.
Bloxom does not believe in airing grievances publicly on social media; instead, he will engage in a private discussion with an individual or group to reach an agreement on a resolution.
He said he called Omega Protein more than once about the cleanup of its July 5 spill, including a call with concern about the dumpster full of dead fish that was left at Morley’s Wharf for several days.
State Sen. Lynwood Lewis, a Democrat, said in a July 12 letter to VMRC Commissioner Jamie Green that Northampton County residents are “rightly outraged” about the recent fish spills.
For example, Omega Protein claiming responsibility for two of the spills was not enough for Eastern Shore residents like Jennifer Bowden Johnson, who wrote on Facebook, “They can accept responsibility all they want! That doesn’t bring the dead fish back to life or repair the damage that may have been done to the bay.”
Lewis sponsored the 2020 Senate bill that granted VMRC responsibility to regulate the menhaden fishery.
In his letter, Lewis did not demand a ban of reduction fishing in the Chesapeake Bay; instead, he called on VMRC to provide answers.
Omega Protein took responsibility for the July 5 fish spill at Silver Beach, caused by a net break, and the July 25 fish spill, in which the net was opened on purpose to release the bycatch of red drum.
However, Northampton residents also saw dead fish washing up at Silver Beach over the July Fourth weekend, indicating an earlier spill for which no one has taken responsibility.
Lewis asked VMRC to share any available information on who was responsible for the earlier spill and a “detailed explanation regarding the circumstances behind these spills, as well as the steps being taken to rectify this situation and what measures will be put in place to ensure that this does not happen again.”
More than 20 presidents and directors of recreational fishing groups, discontent to leave such matters to VMRC, had signed a June 14 letter to Gov. Youngkin asking him to take executive action to “move menhaden reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay until science demonstrates that high volume reduction fishing for menhaden can be allowed without negatively affecting the broader Bay ecosystem.”
The letter stated the economic value of striped bass fishing in Virginia has decreases by more than 50% in the last decade and blamed the decline on commercial fishing of menhaden, a preferred food source for striped bass.
According to an article published by the American Fisheries Society in 2017, a scientific model demonstrated that menhaden reduction fishing contributes to a nearly 30% decline in the number of striped bass on the coast.
The letter asked the governor to act on behalf of the 600,000 anglers who contribute $465 million to Virginia’s economy and support more than 6,500 jobs.
The letter also noted that anglers and boaters across America help fund conservation efforts through licensing fees and taxes on fishing equipment and boat fuel, which go into the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund set up by the U.S. Treasury.
In 2021, the trust fund supplied $399 million to states for fishery conservation programs, including $6.26 million for Virginia.
Among those who signed the letter were Dean Carroll, president of the Eastern Shore Anglers Club, and Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association.
Atkinson also has expressed concern that the nine-member Virginia Marine Resources Commission lacks “representatives of various backgrounds” and Gov. Youngkin “has stacked the commission with commercial fishermen who will look out for the interests of the largest fishing operation on the East Coast,” he wrote in a May 19 guest column for the Virginia Mercury newspaper.
Of the four VMRC commissioners Youngkin appointed in May, one is from Virginia Beach and two are from Reedville, Va., where Omega Protein is headquartered. The other newly appointed commissioner is from Weems, Va., about 25 miles from Reedville.
Of the three commissioners from the Reedville area, one is the vice president of a seafood corporation, another is the owner of a limited liability company called Reedville’s Claws & Scales, and one is the manager of a shipyard.
In appointing these VMRC members, Youngkin appears to have moved in the opposite direction of his predecessor, Northam, who “stacked the board with … recreational fisherman” opposing Omega Protein, Bloxom said.
Bloxom understands why many people on the Eastern Shore do not support Omega Protein.
The corporation was responsible for “two spills very close together that are washing up on the Eastern Shore, where we get zero economic benefit. … We’re catching (Omega Protein’s) trash, but we don’t see any economic benefit from it,” he said.
But “if you tell that commercial fishing fleet that they can’t go in water” belonging to the Commonwealth of Virginia, “which is everyone,” Bloxom said, it could lead to a “slippery slope” in which items such as crab pot floats and PVC pipes marking oyster grounds are prohibited in certain areas just because “people don’t like it.”
Both Bloxom and Lewis have expressed a desire to depoliticize the management of the menhaden fishery.
Bloxom previously tried to get on the VMRC commission but was unsuccessful. “There are other Eastern Shore men who have tried … and could not, because they weren’t connected,” he said.
But despite his previous doubts, Bloxom now views the General Assembly’s decision to turn over management of the menhaden fishery to VMRC as “probably a good move.”
He noted VMRC is expected to hold a public hearing on the menhaden industry in November or December.
Additionally, Lewis requested a meeting between VMRC Commissioner Green, Menhaden Management Advisory Committee Chairman Rob Latour, Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski, and Northampton County Board of Supervisors Chair Betsy Mapp.
Menhaden – Little Fish, Big Deal! is asking members to call or write to their representatives in the General Assembly and sign a petition to the governor to end industrial menhaden reduction fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. The petition can be viewed at https://www.trcp.org/action-alert/stop-industrial-menhaden-fishing-chesap