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Virginia's lawmakers fail to act on declining menhaden population

Edwin J. Viera
9 Feb 2024

Virginia's General Assembly has killed legislation to address the declining menhaden population.

The tiny forage fish are an important part of the food chain for sea life and a source of nutrients for people. The bill would have authorized a study of the reduction in menhaden across the Chesapeake Bay. A version of the bill last year was watered down to form only a study methodology.

Jaclyn Higgins, forage fish program manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said along with ecological effects, the study would have focused on commercial fishing's effects.

"They were going to look at different impacts, like effort patterns," Higgins explained. "Where the more concentrated effort of the menhaden reduction industry is within the bay, if that contributes to localized depletion of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay during the season."

The study would also have included economic impacts. Although the bill failed, two others are moving swiftly. Both would provide special protections for commercial fishing vessels, even for industrial menhaden boats. These are being met with opposition, since they could lead to even lower menhaden populations in the bay.

Chris Dollar, owner of Tackle Cove Sport Fishing, thinks the study should go forward, since it is designed to be a fair assessment of menhaden populations.

"Let the VIMS scientists, Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, do their work," Dollar urged. "Do the sound science that will fill in the knowledge gaps about whether or not menhaden populations are at a level that can sustain the industrial harvest."

Other actions are being taken to fight for menhaden. Last May, the Chesapeake Legal Alliance filed a lawsuit challenging the Virginia Marine Resources Commission's standards on menhaden harvesting. The proposed regulations would have pushed the operations away from the shores of Chesapeake Bay with the hope of preventing net spills.

Without action, supporters argued, it is business as usual but unsustainable, as recent surveys find young menhaden populations are dwindling.

Chris Moore, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the science can inform the state's decisions and goals.

"First of all, we have a healthy population of menhaden in Chesapeake Bay, especially in the face of climate change," Moore pointed out. "Once we're sure that we have that, we can appropriately size our fisheries."

Last year, several groups signed a letter to Gov. Glenn Youngkin calling for menhaden operations to be moved out of Chesapeake Bay, to help protect the ecosystem.

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