Guest column: Menhaden decision a missed opportunity for the Eastern Shore

Dead menhaden wash up at Silver Beach. Photo by Debbie Campbell.

BY BOB MCLAUGHLIN, guest columnist

What a missed opportunity to protect our Eastern Shore beaches and the Chesapeake Bay. Rather than approve common-sense regulations as expected at its Dec. 6 meeting, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission approved a meaningless memorandum of understanding between the commonwealth and Omega Protein, the Atlantic Coast’s only menhaden reduction fishing company. 

This MOU allows those big blue industrial fishing vessels to remain in our bay with no additional enforceable safeguards or restrictions.

Omega Protein is responsible for the horrible net spills that happened this summer, washing up tens of thousands of dead menhaden at Kiptopeke beach and Silver Beach, along with 12,000 pounds of red drum, during our area’s busiest time of the year.  

This VMRC action comes after complaints from Shore residents and a petition with thousands of signatures, and included support from environmental and sportfishing groups such as the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association as well as the local Facebook group called Menhaden- Little Fish, Big Deal!      

Instead of passing a Youngkin administration-led proposal that would have barred the company from fishing within one mile of Chesapeake Bay shorelines and obligated them to fish outside of the Bay on peak holiday periods, the administration apparently yielded to industry lobbyists. 

The MOU states that Omega Protein won’t fish in the bay on summer weekends and holidays – but there are no legal teeth to this, and no enforceability whatsoever.  

Omega Protein also agreed to work with the governor’s office and General Assembly to address geographic buffers in the bay, but only in areas with dense populations. Want to know the area in the bay with the least-dense population and highest probability of net spills? It’s the Eastern Shore.

I applaud the efforts of some of the VMRC board, especially members Heather Lusk and John E. “Ed” Tankard from the Shore, who wanted real regulation. As for the other board members, it turns out that three of them who were appointed by the governor have ties to the menhaden industry. Smell fishy? 

The big blue Omega industrial fishing vessels we see so often in the bay take 110 million pounds annually of menhaden and accompanying by-catch from Virginia waters – 110 million pounds of prime forage for striped bass, drum, cobia, sea birds, whales, and dolphins. Unmeasured damage also occurs as the huge nets scrape and destroy benthic habitat in our shallow Eastern Shore waters.

 It’s unfair that one foreign-owned corporation is allowed to harvest fish all summer along our shores, with no penalties for net spills and bad behavior, and those of us who rely on the bay’s health have to face the consequences of our shores being pillaged on a daily basis. 

When will the Gov. Glenn Youngkin administration stand up to this industry and demand common-sense regulation for a fishery that is harming both the local economy and the environment?  I hope all residents will join me in calling on our elected officials to get something done.  A buffer would have been a good start. Instead, we got a piece of paper that is essentially worthless. 

What more can we do to prove that the Eastern Shore deserves to be protected over corporate interests? 

The writer lives in Machipongo.

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