Omega Protein Exceeds ASMFC Catch Limit of Menhaden

Photo credit: Stephan Lowy

by Don Rippert

What, me worry? Omega Protein has admitted exceeding its menhaden catch limit for 2019 in the Chesapeake Bay. Omega Protein, a Houston-based company and wholly owned subsidiary of Cooke, Inc, a Canadian firm, operates a fishing fleet based in Reedville, Va. Employing about 300 Virginians, Omega Protein has been mired in controversy over the years regarding its heavy catch of menhaden.  Since this topic has been repeatedly covered on Bacon’s Rebellion, I won’t provide detailed background. However, the environmental group Menhaden Defenders operates an informative website describing the situation.

Menhaden Defenders writes, “The commercial menhaden fishery is made up of two sectors, a reduction fishery, which grinds billions of bunker up for fish meal and oil, and the bait fishery which supplies menhaden for lobster and crab traps. Reduction fishing is an antiquated practice that has been banned in every east coast state, except Virginia.” Virginia is the only east coast state that allows reduction fishing and is also the only east coast state that allows unlimited contributions to state politicians. Over the last 26 years Omega Protein has donated just under $600,000 to Virginia politicians, political committees and PACs with the majority going to Republicans.

Twin regulators. Menhaden is the only fish regulated by the General Assembly. The General Assembly does not regulate striped bass, bluefish, redfish, catfish, batfish or ratfish. Only menhaden. All marine fish other than menhaden are regulated by the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commission (VMRC). Freshwater fish are regulated by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The VMRC is a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which was charted by Congress in 1942 and has as its mission … “To promote the better utilization of the fisheries, marine, shell, and diadromous, of the Atlantic seaboard by the development of a joint program for the promotion and protection of such fisheries, and by the prevention of physical waste of the fisheries from any cause.”

In 2017, ASMFC lowered the allowable catch of menhaden inside the Chesapeake Bay (as opposed to in the Atlantic Ocean) from 87,000 metric tones to 51,000 metric tons. That catch reduction became HB 1610 of 2018 General Assembly session. In typical fashion the bill was left in the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee where it died without a publicly reported vote. Omega Protein recently admitted that it had harvested 67,000 metric tons of the fish, 31% over the annual limit set by ASMFC but under the old limit left in place by the non-vote of the General Assembly.

Now what?  Menhaden are crucial prey food for a wide variety of marine species including striped bass, aka rockfish. Earlier this year Virginia canceled the annual Spring trophy rockfish season. You can read about that here and here. The official reason cited for the ban was “overfishing.” However, it seems clear that rockfish in Virginia are in jeopardy. and allowing Omega Protein to exceed the ASMFC limit won’t help. Last Thursday the ASMFC voted to find Virginia out of compliance with fishing regulations. The commission will ask the US Secretary of Commerce to intervene. That intervention could include shutting down Omega Protein’s menhaden fishing operation in the Chesapeake Bay. However, help for the environment from the Trump Administration is unlikely. The Secretary of Commerce has 30 days to review the commission’s ruling on Virginia.

Bottom line. Unlimited campaign contributions are the reason that the General Assembly regulates only the menhaden. Unlimited campaign contributions are the reason Virginia is the only east coast state to allow reduction fishing. Unlimited campaign contributions are the reason the ASMFC proposed Chesapeake Bay reduction bill was left in committee in 2018. Our General Assembly is bought and paid for by special interests. Let’s hope that now the Democrats have taken over they will make campaign finance reform a major initiative starting with the 2020 session.

In other news, Omega Protein paid a $400,000 fine to the Securities and Exchange Commission in August to settle a charge that it was out of compliance on federal loans which have been a significant source of Omega’s external financing (can you say “rent seeker”?). In 2017 the company paid $1 milloin to settle criminal counts of pollution in Louisiana. This followed a plea of guilty to 2013 criminal pollution charges in Reedville which cost the company $5.5 million.