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.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

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

  1. I join you in celebrating the triumph of those who want to protect the Bay and its fish resources against those who are just greedy. And the surprising agreement between Virginia and the Trump administration.

    I have to take issue, however, with your depiction of Omega’s “big campaign checks”. As campaign contributions go, Omega is a relatively little fish in the ocean. During the GA election years of 2015 and 2019, Omega’s total contributions was less than $50,000. In 2017, which was a gubernatorial election year, the total increased to about $80,000. The individual legislators receiving the largest contributions were Del. Margaret Ransone, Sen. Richard Stuart. and Del. Danny Marshall. Ransone and Stuart represent the area in which Omega is located. Marshall was chairman of the Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources Committee. Omega sprinkled around $500 contributions among a lot of legislators, enough to entitle them some access during the Session.

    I suspect most legislators never heard of menhaden and really don’t care anything about the issue. The inertia in the GA can be attributed to the efforts of a few legislators to keep the issue bottled up and good old fashioned “log-rolling” by folks like Stuart and Ransone.

    • In 23 states Omega would be prohibited from making campaign contributions at all. In 22 more states Omega would be severely limited in the campaign contributions it could legally make. For example, in New York corporations are limited to $5,000 per year in aggregate contributions to NY state candidates and committees. In Mississippi corporations can donate up to $1,000 per candidate per year.

      Dick – it sounds to me like you have fallen into the same trap into which we all occasionally fall – forgetting that Omega is a relatively small fish in the ocean only by Virginia standards. In 90% of US states giving money to candidates in the quantity Omega gives to our General Assembly members would have somebody wearing an orange jumpsuit.

      Any legislator who has not heard of a menhaden should recuse himself or herself from any vote on any bill about any aspect of the Chesapeake Bay. I’d bet they all know. And they know just what they have been doing to the menhaden and the Bay. And they know why. $$$ Just like mobsters sometimes speak admiringly of other mobsters’ capers I expect General Assembly members look at the Omega grift as a best practice.

  2. Here we are back to “Blame Canada!” Odds are neither The Donald nor anybody else at 1600 Pennsylvania cares a wit about these fish, and this is a position being taken at the secretarial level or below. It always amazes when greed causes companies to deplete a renewable resources, but greed is powerful. Why would those distant Canadians care? The logic for regulation is strong.

    • Balme Canada? You got that right. Sanctimonious Justin Trudeau lectures the US on pretty much everything while one of his companies decimates a critical cog in the marine ecosystem? Where’s the wonder from the great white yonder when the menhaden need him?

      As for Trump … oh you Never Trumpers! Now Trump doesn’t get credit for what his administration does? He only gets credit for things he personally does? However, as much as I applaud Trump, et al and Northam et al here … Trump’s recent decision on WOTUS was disgraceful.

  3. Just curious — why would the feds fail to take Omega’s side in this — simply agency inertia? Or simply no Congressional Republican sponsor?

    • This has always seemed another classic example where if only some restraint was imposed, the resource would replenish nicely. But humans can’t see past their immediate appetites sometimes….do you assume Republicans like the idea of killing off a species?

  4. yep.. agree.. TRump is clueless…and distracted by other things. I’d not be surprised that Trump and company are looking for some fealty from Omega. Honor the alpha dog or get the lifted leg treatment….

  5. The GA will have a chance to weigh in on this issue in this Session. Several bills have been introduced, including one by Sen. Stuart, that would repeal the Code sections regulating the menhaden fishery and transfer its regulation to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

    By the way, the $25,000 that Omega donated to the Northam Inaugural Committee does not seem to have done it much good.

Leave a Reply