A bill to protect commercial fishermen and their boats from sport fishermen harassment at sea was approved 8-0 by the Virginia House Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee on 2 February.
Virginia House Bill 928, sponsored by Delegate Hillary Pugh Kent, increases the penalty for harassing watermen to a Class I misdemeanor, punishable by confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and a fine of not more than USD 2,500 (EUR 2,330), as well as forfeiture of state hunting and fishing licenses for one year upon first offense and three years upon a second offense.
The dangerous engagement that prompted the bill's drafting involved a jet skier and an Ocean Harvesters menhaden fishing crew on 23 September 2023, which was documented in a video by a menhaden spotter pilot.
The incident occurred approximately 1.5 miles east of Buckroe Beach off Hampton, Virginia, in Chesapeake Bay. As an Ocean Harvesters’ crew was making a set, the rider of the jet ski ran his boat between the two purse boats and was able to get inside the set and out before the set was completed. While running inside the net, the jet skier sprayed the crew with his wake and yelled obscenities at them, according to an account by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition.
The incident resulted in the arrest of the person driving the jet ski. He was found guilty and required to pay a USD 500 (EUR 465) fine.
This was the third harassment issue committed by a recreational boater on an Ocean Harvester vessel last year, according to Ocean Harvesters CEO Monty Deihl.
Reedville, Virginia, U.S.A.-based Ocean Harvesters has a long-term contract to harvest and deliver menhaden for Omega Protein – a subsidiary of Cooke, Inc. It is the only large menhaden reduction fishery on Chesapeake Bay and the largest on the Atlantic coast.
The new legislation is supported by the Virginia Waterman’s Association (VWA), with President J.C. Hudgins saying his organization has been lobbying in support of the bill.
“This is not just an Omega problem. Gillnetters and crab potters are often harassed by sport fishermen and by waterfront landowners who think crabbers are fishing pots too close to their docks,” Hudgins said. “We face all kinds of different levels of harassment and threats – from people complaining because our boat engines going out the creek to work wake them up at 5 a.m. to people screaming at us because they think we are catching all of their fish and crabs. Usually, they go away, but we do not know how far it might escalate and in what manner; that concerns us.”
“We feel this bill has the teeth to make someone think twice about doing something dangerous or outrageous to our watermen and their boats,” Hudgins added.
Hudgins said most of the harassment issues seem to occur in the warmer weather months during the rockfish and Spanish mackerel gillnet and crab pot seasons.
“We do not seem to run into many problems with the public in the winter when oystering,” he said.
Omega Protein and Ocean Harvesters have been criticized by environmental and sport-fishing groups that want the company to stop catching menhaden and to move out of Chesapeake Bay.
In 2023, Virginia Delegate Tim Anderson introduced legislation that would have shut down Virginia’s menhaden reduction fishery in all of the state’s territorial ocean and bay waters. The bill did not advance out of committee.
Photo courtesy of Stoveboat Communications