Northam Comes to the Aid of Menhaden (But is Chap Petersen Paying Attention?)

By Don Rippert

Fish tale. Omega Protein, a Canadian owned company, has willfully exceeded its menhaden catch limit in the Chesapeake Bay. You can read the details here. The catch limit is controversial since menhaden is the only marine fish regulated directly by the Virginia General Assembly. All other saltwater fish in Virginia are regulated by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Every other Atlantic state lets their state fishery regulator and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) set rules for menhaden in their waters. The US Congress chartered ASMFC in 1942. So, ASMFC sets catch limits for Virginia waters – one for the Atlantic and another for the Chesapeake Bay. In Virginia those limits are then incorporated into proposed legislation for the General Assembly. The most recent AMFC-set limits were put into a bill that was never voted on by the General Assembly. This left Omega Protein with two catch limits – the limit last passed by the General Assembly (based on ASMFC guidance) and the most current lower ASMFC limit. Once Omega Protein admitted it had exceeded the most current ASMFC limit Virginia was reported to the US Department of Commerce as being “out of compliance.” Last week Gov Ralph Northam sent a letter to the Secretary of Commerce requesting the feds to put a moratorium on menhaden fishing in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay. It seems that Northam is sending the General Assembly a message — clean up your act or I’ll ask the Feds to clean it up for you. But will the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly listen to Northam or Omega Protein?

The new chap. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, was just announced as the new chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee in the Va. Senate. As far as I can tell, this is the committee responsible for menhaden regulation. He takes this position as a result of the recent election where Democrats took control of the house and senate. Formerly, Sen Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, chaired the committee. Over the years Omega Protein donated more than $20,000 to Stuart’s campaigns, including over $8,000 in 2019 alone.  Omega has donated $4,000 to Petersen’s campaigns, including $500 in 2019 for an election where Petersen ran unopposed. This puts Petersen in an interesting position. Petersen has long been an advocate for campaign finance reform in Virginia. He has already filed legislation for the 2020 session banning campaign contributions from publicly regulated utilities. While this proposed law probably wouldn’t affect Omega Protein, I think it will be hard for Petersen to simultaneously chair the committee, publicly fight special interests and take any money of consequence from Omega Protein. Omega Protein may not be a regulated utility but it is certainly an entity capitalizing on a public resource (i.e. menhaden) regulated by the General Assembly. How different, really, is that from Dominion? One wonders if Sen Petersen would consider returning the $4,000 he received over the years from Omega Protein given his new chairmanship. He has $61,406 on hand and won’t face re-election for four more years. Four thousand dollars id a drop in the (bait) bucket.

The good guys. Back when he was a state senator, Ralph Northam was the patron for 2011 legislation to move regulation of menhaden from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission where it belongs. The bill died in committee. More recent regulation has also been proposed and also killed in committee. Will 2020 be the year that changes? Now Northam is asking the Department of Commerce to put a moratorium on menhaden fishing in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake. Perhaps revenge, like sushi, truly is a dish best served cold.

The Rip wrap. Omega Protein may be running out of luck in Virginia. The U.S. Department of Commerce is considering what actions to take (if any) against Virginia and Omega Protein based on ASMFC’s reporting of Virginia as “non-compliant.”  Commerce has approved actions requested by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 77 out of 78 times. Unsurprisingly, the one time Commerce failed to approve the requested action was under the Trump Administration. Now The Department of Commerce has the sitting governor of the state in question asking for a moratorium on fishing by a company operating in that state. It seems like a good bet that Commerce’s record will go to 78 out of 79 in the near future. Even if the feds don’t act, Virginia has become inhospitable to Omega Protein. Environmentally conscious Democrats control key committees and the legislature. The governor isn’t likely to veto legislation intended to cut back the wanton menhaden killing in Virginia. It’s too bad that Omega Protein was purchased by a Canadian company back in 2017. Previously it was a public company. Right now it would be a heck of a candidate for short selling.