Odd Bedfellows: Trump and Northam Administrations Combine to Protect Virginia’s Menhaden

By DJ Rippert

Cats and dogs sleeping together. The long running saga of the General Assembly and Omega Protein vs. environmentalists and the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commission (VMFC) took a major turn recently. Our General Assembly (buoyed by campaign cash from Omega Protein) sought to use inaction to thwart the VMFC’s scientific management of a small fish called the menhaden in Virginia waters. The VMFC enlisted its east coast umbrella organization, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), to cut Omega’s menhaden limits. Omega resisted citing General Assembly inaction on reduced limits as tacit approval of higher limits. The ASMFC (along with support from the Northam Administration) appealed to the Feds and won. The lower limits will stand whether the General Assembly likes that or not. The net result is that the General Assembly appears to have been forced into a corner. It seems that no amount of campaign contribution cash will get them out of that corner. Beyond the Battle of the Menhaden, this contest forces a question – is the unholy alliance between our state legislature and various special interests finally starting to crack?

Fish story. Many consider a small essentially inedible fish called the menhaden to be the most important fish in the sea. Why? Our little finny friends, also known as bunker or pogy, are filter feeders straining plankton and algae from the water as they grow up to 15 inches in length. They form huge schools that become the marine equivalent of Burger Kings for countless species of larger fish, birds and mammals. A single dolphin can eat 20 pounds of menhaden per day. A substantial decline in menhaden starts a chain reaction of declines in the rockfish (striped bass), ospreys, eagles, bluefish and even humpback whales which feed on the menhaden.

Omega men. Omega Protein is a newly acquired subsidiary of a Canadian conglomerate with a long running menhaden reduction fishery operating out of Reedville, Va. Over the past several years the company has been embroiled in controversy over menhaden fishing limits. On one side is Omega Protein with its big campaign contributions along with the Virginia General Assembly which cashes Omega’s big checks. This cozy relationship is preserved by the fact that the menhaden is the only fish in the sea regulated directly by the General Assembly rather than the scientists of the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commission (VMFC). This is no coincidence. On the other side are environmentalists and the scientists of the VMFC.

The latest dust up. Back in early November I wrote an article for this blog describing how Omega Protein had exceeded its catch limit in the Chesapeake Bay. In reality, Omega has two limits — one set by our pay-for-play General Assembly and another by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or ASMFC (of which the VMFC is a member). Details can be found here under the section heading “Twin regulators.” Later in November the Northam Administration sided with the ASMFC and essentially against the General Assembly by sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce requesting that the Feds put a moratorium on Omega’s menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. You can read my article on that here. By the end of November the stage was set for the Great Menhaden Showdown. Would President Trump’s Commerce Department side with Gov Northam and the environmentalists or with Omega Protein and the General Assembly? I predicted that Trump’s Commerce Department would surprise many by siding with Northam and the environmentalists. As it turns out my prediction was right.

Dandy Don (Trump) to the rescue. As reported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “The Commerce Department has notified the ASMFC that it will impose a moratorium on Virginia’s menhaden harvest if the fishery is not in compliance by June 17, 2020. That time frame was chosen to give Virginia’s legislators time to bring state regulations into compliance and takes into consideration that the Bay harvest cap on menhaden has never been close to being reached by mid-June.” In other words, the ball is now back in the General Assembly’s court. They can either pass a bill accepting ASMFC’s limits or the Feds will shut down the fishery.

Rip’s Wrap. This is good news for the Chesapeake Bay. Certain members of the General Assembly tried to overrule the scientists of the VMFC and the ASMFC. The scientists won aided by both the Trump and Northam Administrations. Beyond the Bay, this is another small victory against the tyranny of the General Assembly and the special interest puppeteers who pull the strings that make our state delegates and senators dance. The General Assembly is under assault from several sides. The second amendment sanctuary jurisdictions claim they will not let their law enforcement personnel enforce the General Assembly’s potential new gun control laws. The new Commonwealth’s Attorney in Fairfax County has pledged not to enforce the General Assembly’s marijuana possession laws. The governor (bravo to Gov. Northam, by the way) petitioned the federal government to rein in one of Virginia’s most conspicuous special interests and the Feds agreed. I can only imagine that the heads of the plantation elite who have been running Virginia for 200 years are either exploding or getting darn close.