By Stefanie Jackson – Last week, around the July Fourth holiday, a break in a fishing net caused thousands of dead menhaden to wash up onshore in Silver Beach, and even though the beach has since been cleaned up, Northampton County residents were still left with the stink of the incident, both literally and figuratively.
Menhaden are filter-feeding fish that are related to herring; they can be used as bait or for producing fertilizer or fish oil-based health supplements or animal feed.
Ocean Harvesters, which catches menhaden for the company Omega Protein, reported and took responsibility for a spill that occurred July 5 about a mile offshore from Silver Beach.
There appear to have been two separate spills involving different fishing companies, as Silver Beach residents reported dead menhaden washing up onshore as early as July 2, and Ocean Harvesters reported none of its vessels were operating between July 2 and July 4.
The entity responsible for the earlier spill remains unknown.
The Virginia Marine Resource Commission is investigating the Ocean Harvesters spill, and a representative of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, environmental specialist Kevin Cline, visited the spill site Wednesday morning.
On or after July 5, a cleanup crew was sent to Silver Beach and removed most of the dead fish. However, they left behind one of the large black trash bags full of smelly, decaying carcasses, said Debbie Campbell, who lives in Salisbury, Md., but owns a home in Silver Beach, where she retreats during the summer.
Most of the trash bags were placed in a dumpster belonging to Hepaco, a company that provides emergency response services to clean up spills of all types and sizes.
Both Northampton and Accomack administrators confirmed that Davis Disposal, which provides roll-off dumpster service, had contacted the landfills for both counties to inquire if either would accept the dead fish. Both said “no.”
It is against Accomack County policy for its landfill to accept waste from Northampton County. Furthermore, the Accomack landfill is for residential waste, but the fish spill was an “industrial accident,” said Deputy Administrator of Public Works and Facilities Stewart Hall.
The Hepaco dumpster, still full of dead fish, was left at Morley’s Wharf and was found by concerned citizens over the weekend. As of Wednesday morning, the dumpster had not been removed, but by the evening hours, it was gone, according to Exmore resident Bill Thomas.
Northampton County Deputy Administrator Janice Williams recalled that it was once common for commercial dumpsters or “green boxes” full of trash to be left in the Morley’s Wharf parking lot, and to the best of her knowledge, temporarily leaving a dumpster at the public facility did not violate any code or ordinance.
However, there was concern in the Silver Beach community that the rotting and liquefied fish waste was leaking out of the dumpster toward Occohannock Creek.
Concerned citizens have created a Facebook group called “Menhaden – Little Fish, Big Deal!” Its members are advocating for companies like Omega Protein to be held accountable for actions that adversely impact the environment and surrounding communities.
According to the Good Jobs First website, Cooke Inc., the Canada-based parent company of Omega Protein, has paid nearly $13 million in penalties for violations related to the environment, safety, government contracting, and finances.
More than $10 million of the penalties paid were for environmental-related offenses.
Citizens are also concerned that laws and regulations related to the menhaden fishing industry may be influenced by Omega Protein’s political donations.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project website, since 1996, the earliest year for which data was available, Omega Protein has made nearly $700,000 in political donations.
Omega Protein has donated a total of $303,000 to Democrats and about $385,000 to Republicans, including $25,000 each to the 2018 inaugural committee of former Gov. Ralph Northam and the 2022 inaugural committee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Fishing net breaks occur about two or three times per year, and of the 14 net breaks reported from 2018 to 2022, two were in the Chesapeake Bay, said VMRC Deputy Chief of Fisheries Management Adam Kenyon.
Kenyon also said that menhaden are managed on a regional basis and fishing is permitted in the entire Chesapeake Bay, but in practice, happens only in the Virginia portion.
Over the past 20 years that Debbie Campbell has spent summers in Silver Beach, she has witnessed dead fish from spills washing up onshore almost every year.
“We are not a bunch of whining, elite neighbors who don’t want to be troubled by a dead fish on our beach,” Campbell said of the Silver Beach community. “This is a huge issue about the waters of the Chesapeake (Bay) in Virginia being the only waters of the Chesapeake where this nonsense (reduction fishing) is allowed.”