REEDVILLE—Omega Protein Corp., the last of a long line of fish rendering companies that dotted the Atlantic Coast, has battled for years with environmentalists and fishery managers over how many tons of menhaden it should be allowed to harvest, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay.
Virginia always had the company’s back.
But at last week’s meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in New Hampshire, there was a slight shift in that support.
It began with an apology by Virginia Commissioner Steve Bowman after Omega’s Reedville-based fishing fleet took about 30 percent more than was allowed by a Chesapeake Bay cap on harvests put in place by the commission in 2017.
“First and foremost on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I’d like to apologize for being in this situation,” he said. “Governor [Ralph] Northam and Secretary [for Natural Resources Matt] Strickler have demonstrated a desire to improve not only water quality, but the environment in general. It’s been one of the hallmarks of their administration and team. So to be found out of compliance on such an important matter is very, very disturbing.”
Bowman voted along with all the commissioners to find Virginia out of compliance with the harvest cap of 51,000 metric tons. Omega is not done fishing this year, but so far has gone over the cap by some 16,000 metric tons, or about 33 million pounds.
Bowman’s stand seems worlds apart from former Commissioner Rob O’Reilly, who retired from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission last month.
O’Reilly strictly stuck to saying there was no scientific basis to indicate the Chesapeake Bay has suffered any localized depletion.
“I certainly understand those who hold to that concept, only because they think of the Chesapeake Bay as different from the coastal area, but it’s not,” he told the commission back in 2017. Other commissioners agreed.
Omega’s fleet didn’t get caught breaking the cap. The company actually wrote a letter to regulators saying it would be forced to break the cap because bad weather in the Atlantic made fishing unsafe. Besides that, huge schools of menhaden had moved to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the fleet would be following them to safer waters to fish.
It was simple economics, stop fishing and the fishermen don’t bring home a paycheck, the company said.
More importantly, Virginia’s General Assembly only oversees one fish– menhaden—and legislators have refused to adopt the Chesapeake Bay harvest cap. Many of them receive campaign money from Omega.
Omega said that while it didn’t adhere to the 2017 Bay cap, it remains under the old cap of 81,000 metric tons.
All this stuck in the craw of some commissioners and especially Eric Reid. He represented Rhode Island at last week’s meeting and also happens to be a commercial fisherman.
“I got boats sitting at the dock, too. And when the feds said fishing is over, we stayed tied to the dock,” he told Omega spokesman Ben Landry. “We didn’t write a letter saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got 150 employees as well and we need to make money and we’re going.’ We stopped. It kinda rubs my nose in it a little bit. I don’t care for it.”
Omega’s Atlantic fleet docks next to its rendering factory in Reedville. There the fish are processed for their oil and made into fish meal for industrial aquaculture operations.
Monty Deal, vice president of operations, is a veteran who hails from Reedville. He marches down main street in Fourth of July parades and is active in the community.
But that small-town, all-American corporate image may also be changing. The same year the commissioners voted on the Chesapeake Bay cap, Omega was purchased for $500 million by a Canada-based company–Cooke Aquaculture Inc.
Some consider Cooke to be the world’s largest independent seafood company, with billions of dollars in annual revenue. Some commissioners referred to Omega as “foreign-owned.”
Landry is so used to appearing before the commissioners, who hail from Florida to Maine, that when he speaks to them he often calls them “you guys.” He maintains that scientific models reworked a few years ago show menhaden stocks to be healthy. He often refers to ASMFC rules as arbitrary and not based on science.
“I come before you today without any illusions,” he told them, then went on to describe the population of menhaden as healthy and robust according to the last stock assessment.
“It’s not a declining stock, so I think that’s important,” he said. “So take that into account as you guys think about how to view this overage.”
But Maryland Commissioner Lynn Fegley took issue with Landry’s assessment. She reminded him that newer science is on the way that will be based on what is referred to as ecological reference points that give a better picture of the health of a species.
“I would just ask you, Mr. Landry, to keep that in your mind because we don’t want to hear, I personally don’t want to hear, that ecological reference point isn’t set appropriately, because it will be a value judgment,” she said. “It will have that component, but it’s going to be a scientifically-backed one.”
Scientists are also working on a new stock assessment of menhaden, always a tricky task because the fish move in and out of the bay and up and down the coast. Omega, with its spotter planes and ships, may be in a better position to gauge how many fish are in the bay.
Still, Fegley and other commissioners have voiced concern over industrial fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, which they and scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and other universities and institutions point out is a nursery for menhaden and other species that rely on menhaden in their diet.
Menhaden are linked to the health of other species such as striped bass, now experiencing a decline partly linked to poor diet. At the same meeting this week, the commission voted to reduce Chesapeake Bay striped bass commercial quotas by 18 percent and limit anglers to a one-fish bag limit that must be 18 inches or larger.
At its next meeting in February, the commission will have a lot on its plate–new models, new stock assessments and how to use them to better manage all fish, many of which are moving to northern waters as climate change warms the mid-Atlantic.
In the meantime, the commission plans to deduct the amount of metric tons of fish exceeded by Virginia from next year’s harvest and it once again will ask the Virginia legislature to adopt the Bay cap during its next session in January. A letter also will be sent to Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross, who can consider taking action against the company, or, according to one industry-watcher, he could go against the cap.