Next week could be a game-changer for Omega Protein and Ocean Harvesters. On Dec. 6, Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) will consider new regulations for the menhaden fishing industry.
The proposal for stricter regulations comes after several fish spills in July that resulted in dead fish washing up on beaches in Silver Beach and Kiptopeke.
According to documentation from VMRC, there was an unreported fish spill that caused dead fish to wash up on Silver Beach over Independence Day weekend.
Then, on July 5, Omega Protein reported and claimed responsibility for another fish spill caused by a net tear, which caused more fish to wash ashore at Silver Beach. Omega Protein estimates that spill was over 19,500 fish, or 13,120 pounds.
On July 25, Omega Protein reported a fish spill that the company said included 10,000 menhaden and 264 red drum, which is a protected species. Dead fish from that incident washed ashore at Kiptopeke State Park.
For both of the latter incidents, Omega Protein’s fishing contractor, Ocean Harvesters, deployed boats and a third-party contractor to conduct the cleanup. VMRC noted that when Omega Protein is responsible for fish spills that cause fish to wash ashore, the company does clean it up.
However, VMRC said Virginia’s menhaden fishery reported an average of four fish spills per year between 2018 and 2021. And although the probability of net tears and fish spills from menhaden purse seine fisheries is “very low”, averaging about 1.11 spills for every 1,000 net set, according to the commission, those that have occurred recently have heightened public awareness and concern.
VMRC said a range of entities, including recreational anglers, organizations, and state congressmen have been voicing those concerns and calling for action from a range of state authorities, including VMRC, the Secretary of Natural Resources, and the Governor’s Office.
Therefore, VMRC is considering three notable regulations, including:
1) Barring purse seining within a nautical mile of the mean low tide line. This aims to keep menhaden fishing boats in deeper waters so there’s less likelihood of snags and net tears and of any dead fish washing ashore.
2) Imposing a buffer that bars fishing within ½ nautical mile on each side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
3) Prohibiting purse seine fishing in the Chesapeake Bay during summer holidays when recreational activities on the water and beaches are at the peak. This prohibition would include days surrounding and Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.
“The impacts to local businesses and municipalities relying on summer tourist dollars during these holidays can be significant. Preventing the possibility of a spill during these holidays is important to local economies and the rights of residents and visitors,” said VMRC.
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