By Stefanie Jackson – A petition to stop corporation Omega Protein from sending boats into the Chesapeake Bay to fish for menhaden has gained more than 1,000 signatures.
Christi Medice, of Silver Beach, where thousands of the small, herring-like fish washed up dead in early July following a net break, has been going out into the community raising awareness of the detriments of the menhaden industry and collecting signatures for the petition.
She also started an online petition that has more than 6,000 signatures and hopes the petitions will capture the attention of Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Menhaden prefer to eat algae and plankton, and as filter feeders they generally are not caught for human consumption. Instead, menhaden caught through “reduction fishing” are reduced or processed into products such as fish oil health supplements, which provide omega-3 fatty acids, and fishmeal, a protein source for farm animals, inspiring the name “Omega Protein.”
When menhaden eat algae, the fish help clean the bay by preventing the formation of algal blooms that cause problems like blocking sunlight needed by growing sea grasses. When algal blooms die, the decomposition process removes oxygen from the water, which other marine life needs.
Menhaden also are a major food source for fish like striped bass and birds such as osprey.
Medice is an administrator of the Facebook group “Menhaden – Little Fish, Big Deal!” whose members say that menhaden are being overfished in the Chesapeake Bay on account of Omega Protein, to the detriment of other marine life and the bay itself.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, formed by 15 states and chartered by Congress in 1942 to manage fishery resources, issued a press release Aug. 4 stating that the menhaden stock “is not overfished.”
However, this assessment relates to the entire East Coast, from Maine to Florida, not for one specific region like the Chesapeake Bay.
State Sen. Lynwood Lewis called for a local study at an August meeting he had requested, which included Del. Robert Bloxom, Northampton County officials, and a member of the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, which manages the state’s menhaden fishing industry as of 2020.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission determined the total amount of menhaden permitted to be caught in the 15 states on the East Coast between 2021 and 2022 was about 194,000 metric tons.
According to ASMFC, nearly 79% of that quota, or around 151,000 metric tons of menhaden, was caught in Virginia waters, including the Chesapeake Bay.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which supports American hunting and fishing, states that the Chesapeake Bay acts as a nursery for 70% to 90% of all the striped bass on the Atlantic coast, and the diet of a striped bass consists of 30% menhaden.
TRCP and dozens of other conservation and recreational fishing groups signed a June 14 letter to Gov. Youngkin contending that menhaden are overfished, and that is why fewer striped bass are being caught by sport fishermen.
Sen. Lewis suggested menhaden regulations to VMRC such as requiring menhaden lost in fish spills to count toward annual quotas, prohibiting menhaden fishing less than a mile from shore, and requiring that fish spills are cleaned up within a designated period of time.
But those measures will not go far enough for at least 1,000 people who signed the petition to ban menhaden reduction fishing in the Chesapeake Bay.
Medice continues to seek more signatures for the petition and is recruiting volunteers on Facebook to help the cause.