Virginia Marine Resources cautions Omega Protein on quota, fish spill

Published on
September 16, 2021
An Omega Protein fishing vessel, owned and operated by Ocean Harvesters

Virginia Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Steven Bowman sent a letter to Omega Protein on 8 September warning the company that it has caught 75 percent of its menhaden quota and criticizing it for fish spills in the Chesapeake Bay – topics that the company said it is well aware of.

Bowman’s letter said that the company has harvested 38,390 metric tons (MT) of menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay, 75.3 percent of the total allowable catch. The letter said the catch in the bay was in spite of suitable weather outside the bay for the fishing fleet to fish.

“This is a troubling development, as recent harvest rates mirror those from 2019 when Omega did exceed the bay harvest cap by 15,000 metric tons (30 percent),” Bowman wrote. “As I’m sure you recall, this led the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to impose a moratorium on menhaden harvest until overages and management shortcomings were addressed.”

The commissioner said if the company exceeded the cap again, he would be “required to notify the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.”

“This notification could result in a finding of non-compliance by the commission and a referral to the [U.S.] Secretary of Commerce,” Bowman wrote. “Should the Secretary of Commerce determine yet again that Omega has not complied with the law, she may declare another moratorium on the harvest of menhaden in the Virginia waters.”

Ocean Harvesters – which Omega Protein has signed a long-term supply contract with – responded with a letter of its own that said it is aware of the volume of menhaden that it has caught so far this year.

“We receive the same weekly NOAA report on bay landings and based on NOAA’s most recent bay landings through 5 September, 2021, we are at 79.3 percent of the cap,” Ocean Harvesters Vice President Monty Deihl said in a written response. “Additionally, based on our internal daily tracking, we are at approximately 85 percent of the cap landed as of the date of this letter [10 September].”

The company said the reason that it had been fishing inside of the bay and not outside of it, despite the good weather, is largely due to the nature of the menhaden fishery.

“Ocean fishing requires two conditions; favorable weather where the sea state is three feet or less for safety of our crews (which will always be our top priority) and the ability to see schools of fish on which we can work,” Deihl said.

The menhaden fishery, he said, is a “sight fishery” that uses plane spotters to find schools of fish. The spotters prioritize finding fish outside of the bay, but when conditions prevent spotting the fish – either due to sunlight, tides, the sea state, or more – the company will turn to fishing inside the bay.

The letter from Bowman also criticized Omega Protein for recently reported fish spills in the Chesapeake Bay, which resulted in “an estimated 400,000 fish spilled and presumably dead by your company’s own account.”

“Should this type of activity continue to occur, this could trigger an amendment to the regulation whereby these spill volumes could be deducted from the established quota,” Bowman wrote.

Soon after the letter was issued, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – a local nonprofit that has in the past opposed Omega Protein’s fishing in the bay – responded calling it a “waste.”

“Allowing hundreds of thousands of dead fish to go to waste and pollute our waters is not only irresponsible, it is another environmental failure by frequent violator Omega Protein,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist Chris Moore said in a statement. “Rather than nourishing striped bass and whales, Omega Protein spilled 400,000 menhaden that could rot and foul beaches and waterways on a late summer weekend.”

Deihl said the company is also aware of the fish spills, and that the company has a proactive policy to notify the VMRC when one occurs. He went on to say that fish spills have “always been a major concern for us,” and that the company avoids them as best as they can, but that sometimes “they are unavoidable.”

When the company’s large fish-nets are being pumped into the “mother ship,” as Deihl wrote, the ships can’t engage propellers out of risk of entanglement, and are at the mercy of the tides. If there’s something protruding from the seabed that happens to tear a net, the company often doesn’t realize it has happened until pumping the fish is complete.

“In most cases, we do not know how many fish, if any, may have escaped from the torn net, nor do we know if any will actually die,” Deihl wrote. 

Omega Protein Director of Public Affairs Ben Landry said in addition to VMRC notification, the company also monitors the waters where the tear has occurred.

“When a spill does occur, company policy is to immediately notify Virginia Marine Resources Commission officials, provide them with the coordinates of the spill, and an estimation of how many fish escaped,” he said. “Spotter pilots will then monitor the area for two to three days to look for any dead fish, and will then report those to the VMRC as well. The company claims responsibility for any spill it is involved in and thoroughly cleans any impacted beach or shoreline areas.”

Landry said “despite initial news reports to the contrary,” there was only one spill, and only a fraction of the fish died – with none of those fish reaching the shore.

Omega Protein said the company’s fishermen are experienced and well-aware of the risks of a spill, and are experts at avoiding them.

“Boat captains have an average of over 35 years experience, and many fishermen come from multi-generational fishing families that have fished on the bay for decades. They know the bay, and are among the best at avoiding fish spills and other hazards inherent in fishing,” the company said. “As a result, fish spills are a rare occurrence. On average, menhaden fishing boats will make about 2,500 sets per year. Of those sets, an average of only three, or 0.12 percent of all sets, will result in a net tear and a fish spill.”

Deihl said that the company hopes to continue to have a positive relationship with the VMRC.

“Commissioner Bowman, you have a long history in the enforcement of, and working with, Virginia’s commercial menhaden fishery,” Deihl wrote. “I hope in your near 30 years of involvement with this industry that you have seen positive changes in how we operate and our stewardship of the bay and its resources.”

Photo courtesy of Omega Protein  

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