Menhaden in Virginia

menhaden fishing is centered on the Omega Protein processing plant in Reedville, the last remaining facility on the East Coast that still extracts fish oil from menhaden
menhaden fishing is centered on the Omega Protein processing plant in Reedville, the last remaining facility on the East Coast that still extracts fish oil from menhaden
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) may be the most important fish in the Chesapeake Bay. The species supports a major industrial fish processing plant in Reedville, which creates fish oil rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Menhaden, which are also known as mossbunker, fatbacks, bunker, alewife, and pogy, strain phytoplankton and zooplankton from the water, filtering and converting excessive amounts of algae into fish protein. Other fish - especially striped bass or "stripers" (Morone saxatilis) - then feed on the menhaden, as do ospreys and bald eagles.

The Chesapeake Bay is a nursery where juvenile menhaden grow, before moving out into the Atlantic Ocean. The bay's populations are lower than in the 1960's-1980's. Because menhaden are food for striped bass and other species, their decline may be affecting efforts to increase the populations of the forager fish.

The reduced numbers of menhaden within the bay creates other ecological impacts as well. Without vast schools of menhaden, algae in the bay is underutilized. After the algae dies, it decays on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and creates oxygen-deficient dead zones. When oysters, menhaden, and other filter feeders strip algae from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the clarity of the water improves, Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) can grow better, and other aquatic life such as blue crabs can utilize the bottom without starving for oxygen.

Humans do not eat menhaden directly, not even in fish tacos or reconstituted into fake crab meat; the fish is too oily and bony. The fish are caught to be used as bait, or to be converted into a food supplement.

Virginia is the last place on the East Coast where menhaden is cooked, "reducing" it to extract the oil. The Omega-3 fatty acids in the oil are used in food supplement pills. The cooked and pressed remains of the menhaden, after oil extraction, are used for pet food or as fertilizer.

Though use of protein-rich fish meal just as fertilizer may appear to be wasteful, there is a long tradition of using menhaden for that purpose. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):1

Native Americans in precolonial America called the fish "munnawhatteaug," which means "fertilizer."
Menhaden are probably the fish that the indigenous tribes urged the Pilgrims to plant along with their corn as fertilizer.

Atlantic menhaden
Atlantic menhaden
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Factories to "reduce" menhaden to oil and protein leftovers were once common from Maine to Florida, as well as on the Gulf Coast. After the Civil War, Elijah Reed moved from Maine to Old Point Comfort, then to Cockrell's Creek in 1874. Many small fish processing operations were located on multiple points of land on the western edge of the Chesapeake Bay, originally cooking menhaden in kettles and skimming off the oil.

All of the menhaden processing factories have disappeared now except for the Omega Protein operation in Northumberland County. A fish reduction facility has operated continuously on Cockrell Creek at Reedville since 1878. The only fish refinery left on the East Coast still cooks menhaden to separate it into fish oil used for Omega-3 diet supplements and protein for animal meal. In 2020, Omega Protein employed 260 people at its fish factory in Reedville, making it the second-largest employer in the county after the school system.2

Today, menhaden stocks are dramatically reduced, primarily due to overharvesting. Because menhaden travel in large "schools," large numbers can be caught in nets.

menhaden travel in schools
menhaden travel in "schools"
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Photo Gallery

Processing the large number of inedible menhaden into useable products is an industrial operation. Though the historical level of pollution has been reduced, waste management is still a challenge. In 2013, a Federal judge fined the company $5.5 million - plus a $2 million company "donation" for Chesapeake Bay restoration projects - because waste disposal from menhaden processing had violated the Clean Water Act.

Omega Protein was allowed to dump "bail water" from its fishing vessels, which included fish scales, fins and fish excrement, more than three miles from the coast into the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, the bail water was dumped into the Chesapeake Bay, increasing the bay's excessive amount of nutrients such as nitrogen. In addition, Omega Protein also was fined for modifying its fishing vessels to dump oily bilge water illegally.3

Omega Protein dumped bail water illegally into the Chesapeake Bay, rather than haul it beyond the three-mile limit into the Atlantic Ocean
Omega Protein dumped "bail water" illegally into the Chesapeake Bay, rather than haul it beyond the three-mile limit into the Atlantic Ocean

The company hires 7-10 catch boats to surround the menhaden schools with nets, "setting" overtop the schools of fish in the Chesapeake Bay or in the Atlantic Ocean, then load the fish onto the boats. Virginia still permits commercial harvest within the state waters, up to three miles from the coast. Beyond the three mile limit to the edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) 200 miles offshore, the Federal government controls natural resources.

Omega Protein, the last remaining commercial menhaden fishing operation on the Atlantic Coast, harvests 80% of the menhaden that are caught. Bait fishermen catch the remaining 20%, to use in crab pots or put on hooks to catch striped bass.

Source: Omega Protein, Omega Protein: Our Menhaden Fishing Family

Conservationists have regularly battled with Omega Protein, petitioning the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to reduce the permitted harvest so menhaden populations can recover. In 2011 the commission reduced the acceptable harvest level to leave 30 percent of the adult population to spawn annually, as opposed to 8 percent at the time.4

Menhaden are born in the Atlantic Ocean, especially offshore of Cape Lookout, North Carolina between December-February. Larvae are carried by wind-blown currents into the Chesapeake Bay (and other estuaries along the Atlantic Ocean coastline) after a few months. In the estuaries the larval menhaden grow, metamorphose into filter-feeding juveniles (losing teeth in the process), then assemble into dense schools.

From August through November, they migrate back to the ocean and overwinter off the North Carolina coast. In following years, adults migrate each summer as far north as the Massachusetts/Maine coast and in winter down to North Carolina coast, maturing after 2-3 years.5

menhaden caught in nets are transferred to the mother ship for transport to a reduction center, where the valuable fish oil is extracted
menhaden caught in nets are transferred to the mother ship for transport to a reduction center, where the valuable fish oil is extracted
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Enforcement Reform Frequently Asked Questions and Answers (FAQ)

As described by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science:6

Ecology & Life History

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) are small (maximum length = 15 inches), schooling fish related to herring, shad, and sardines. Menhaden consume large quantities of phytoplankton and zooplankton, and are themselves a favorite food of striped bass, bluefish, sea trout, tunas, sharks, and sea birds. The species inhabits near-shore waters along the Atlantic seaboard from Nova Scotia southward to central Florida.

Menhaden spawn in the ocean, in shelf waters off Chesapeake Bay from March to May, and again in September and October. The young menhaden drift with currents until they reach a coastal inlet, then work upstream to live for the summer. Larvae use brackish and fresh water inlets and estuaries as nursery areas, where they metamorphose into juveniles and grow rapidly. Menhaden are common in all salinities of Chesapeake Bay during the spring, summer, and fall, swimming in large schools near the water's surface.

Young-of-the-year menhaden leave Chesapeake Bay in late fall and join schools in southward migration. During the fall and early winter, most menhaden migrate south to deeper waters off the North Carolina capes, where they remain until March and early April.

Summer die-offs of large numbers of Atlantic menhaden are common in Chesapeake Bay, mostly associated with episodes of low dissolved oxygen (i.e., dead zones) in Bay waters.

Status of the Menhaden Fishery

Menhaden support one of the most commercially important fisheries along the Atlantic Coast, providing fish meal, fish oil, and bait for other fisheries. More pounds of menhaden are landed each year than any other fish in the United States, with coast-wide landings ranging from 300,000 to 400,000 metric tons since the mid-1970s. Since 1980, this fishery has accounted for almost 40% of total annual Atlantic Coast landings by weight. Most of the catch is made by purse seine for the reduction fishery (in which menhaden are "reduced" to fish meal and oil).

catching menhaden in a purse net, after surrounding a school
catching menhaden in a purse net, after surrounding a school
Source: Omega Protein, Shareholder Presentation (May 17, 2011)

Following industry consolidation and closure of most state waters to the reduction fishery in the 1980s and early 1990s, more than half of the total menhaden harvest has shifted to Chesapeake Bay. Although the most recent coast-wide stock assessment by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) indicates that the coast-wide menhaden stock is not over-fished, recreational fishing interests and some conservation groups have expressed concern that there could be negative effects of concentrated harvest in Chesapeake Bay.

One concern is that current levels of menhaden removals may lead to "localized depletion" of the stock within Chesapeake Bay, which could undermine menhaden's important ecological role as a principal prey species and filter feeder in Bay waters.

A related concern is that low recruitment of menhaden may be affecting the species' ability to serve as a major food source for other fish. Many recreational anglers contend that the poor nutritional condition of striped bass in Chesapeake Bay in recent years is linked to insufficient forage (menhaden) supply. Although menhaden stock biomass is currently high, it is likely to decline in the next few years due to low recruitment. Studies indicate that environmental conditions are likely more important than the size of spawning stock in determining reproductive success, although there is a weak spawner-recruit relationship.

menhaden schools are spotted by light aircraft and helicopters, and boats are then directed to the best locations for commercial harvest
menhaden schools are spotted by light aircraft and helicopters, and boats are then directed to the best locations for commercial harvest
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Photo Gallery

Menhaden are not a threatened or endangered species. There are plenty in the Atlantic Ocean, but conservationists fear that over-fishing could result in "ecological depletion" in the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to ecological concerns, one key debate is between commercial vs. recreational users: does commercial harvest of menhaden reduce the number of rockfish that can be caught by recreational anglers?

In Virginia, menhaden was until 2020 the only species where the General Assembly itself managed harvest seasons and limits. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission demonstrated its ability to reject arguments regarding the costs of limiting harvests, and focus on long-term economic recovery of a species, when it banned the winter dredge fishery for blue crabs. However, for many years the General Assembly of Virginia retained direct authority over the fishing season for menhaden. That ensured the Virginia Marine Resources Commission would not have the option to limit the catch of menhaden, except with the approval of the legislators. Protection of Omega Protein finally ended when the Federal government intervened.

In 2019, the Department of Commerce endorsed an action by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the interstate organization that sets harvest limits on menhaden. The ASMFC was created through an interstate compact ratified by Congress in 1942. It manages over 20 species of migratory fish in state waters along the Atlantic Ocean shoreline, restraining the temptation of one state to overharvest a species while other states tried to conserve it.

The power of that commission to regulate fish harvests from coastal waters was strengthened by later legislation, including the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act in 1993. The Secretary of Commerce was authorized to block a state from fishing within the waters of the noncomplying State, asserting authority over state waters within three miles of the shoreline. ASMFC has no authority over the Exclusive Economic Zone.

significant offshore boundaries beyond the three mile boundary
significant offshore boundaries beyond the three mile boundary
Source: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, Multipurpose Marine Cadastre

The first ASMFC management plan for menhaden was approved in 1981. In 2005, the commission amended its Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden and established a limit on the menhaden catch in the Chesapeake Bay - waters under the control of Virginia and Maryland.

The Virginia General Assembly refused to pass legislation to implement that limit, and in 2006 the state's Attorney General wrote an opinion that the interstate commission had exceeded its legal authority. Despite that opinion, Omega Protein agreed to comply voluntarily with the limit after the commission approved it again in 2006.7

In 2009, the ASMFC Menhaden Technical Committee updated its computer model and discovered that the old version had seriously miscalculated the status of the menhaden population. In 2011, the ASMFC proposed reducing the total allowable catch (TAC) of menhaden within the Chesapeake Bay, and also limiting the menhaden harvest in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The commission determined that reducing both the commercial harvest, and the harvest for bait fish (including in New England lobster traps), would help to increase the population of mature adults.

The new fishing mortality target was set at no more than 30% of the Maximum Spawning Potential, up from the 8% assumption that guided the 2006 limits. The proposal from the Virginia representative to set the limit at 20% of the Maximum Spawning Potential was rejected. By preserving essentially 30% of the fish rather than 8% or 20%, the wild fish population could recover faster - but harvests would have to be reduced substantially.8

for decades, menhaden have been over-fished and populations have plummeted as a result
for decades, menhaden have been over-fished and populations have plummeted as a result
Source: Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Atlantic Menhaden - 2012 stock assessment

Striped bass anglers and conservationists supported the change, based on concerns that the menhaden population was so low that striped bass were starving in the bay. Omega Protein was opposed, and it was unclear if Virginia would comply with that new limit. The State Senator representing the Reedville area proposed Virginia should withdraw from the commission, though the state would still be obliged to comply with the new limit.9

The worst-case scenario was that the Secretary of Commerce would react to Virginia's failure to control overfishing, and order a complete ban on menhaden fishing within both Virginia and Federal waters off the Virginia coast. That action would trigger a legal test of the constitutional authority of the ASMFC, delaying or potentially blocking the implementation of a fishing mortality target set by the ASMFC.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission imposed a 20% reduction in December 2012. Virginia's 2013 General Assembly did agree to comply with the ASMFC reduction for two years, even though Omega Protein announced that a reduction would trigger elimination of one of the vessels in its fishing fleet. The company claimed the lower limit would eliminate $20 million/year in revenues, so Omega Protein would have to cut expenses.10

the Atlantic Menhaden quota (in pounds) for Virginia, as determined by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012, dwarfed the allocation for other states
the Atlantic Menhaden quota (in pounds) for Virginia, as determined by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012, dwarfed the allocation for other states
Source: data from Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission news release, First Year of Atlantic Menhaden Amendment 2 Implementation Yields Positive Results (May 16, 2014)

For the 2013 season, Omega Protein announced plans to reduce on-land employment by 10 workers and on-water employment by 30 workers. The company cut back to a seven-ship fleet, down from nine ships in 2011 and eight in 2012. The 2013 fleet included two ships that previously serviced oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and were reconditioned for Virginia in order to store fish in refrigerated tanks and to meet Coast Guard requirements for bilge water discharge.11

Federal officials survey commercial menhaden catches to estimate the status of the population
Federal officials survey commercial menhaden catches to estimate the status of the population
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Biostatistical Menhaden Surveys

In 2015, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission again revised its assessment of the menhaden population. The commission recalculated the biomass, the total number of pounds of menhaden swimming in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. It concluded that some menhaden reproduced in their second year, not just after three years. In addition, older fish in the northern part of the range were larger than had been calculated previously, so total biomass was not below average for the last decade, the population was healthy, and menhaden were not over-fished.

The results triggered proposals to increase the menhaden harvest, especially for the fishermen who caught the fish to use as bait for other species such as rockfish. The counter-argument advanced by some conservationists was that the number of small menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay was still insufficient to support other species as a food source, and that an assessment of the biomass of a single species needed to be expanded to consider the ecological role of menhaden.12

In 2017, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission determined that the overall menhaden catch was sustainable, but not in the Chesapeake Bay. It set a new cap of 51,000 metric tons within the bay, substantially lower than its first cap set in 2006. The 2006 limit was 109,020 metric tons. It was based on the average harvest within the bay (excluding Atlantic Ocean harvest) by Omega Protein over the previous five years.

A new cap of 87,216 metric tons was set by the regional fisheries commission in 2012, and that limit was endorsed by the General Assembly. Between 2012-2017, Omega Protein had never harvested more than 51,000 metric tons from the bay.

Also in 2017, the Canadian company Cooke Inc. acquired Omega Protein for $500 million. Cooke Inc. was considered the world's largest independent seafood company. In a corporate reorganization, the 30-vessel shipping fleet became part of a separate organization, Alpha VesselCo, LLC. Omega Protein contracted for the fleet, and when a new vessel was launched in 2018 the event was hosted by Omega Protein rather than Alpha VesselCo, LLC.

In 2018 the Virginia General Assembly refused to endorse the revised cap of 51,000 metric tons. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission considered penalizing the state, but feared that the Secretary of the Department of Commerce in the Trump Administration would not support such action. The final compromise was a decision to do nothing unless Omega Protein exceeded the cap.

The company caught only 35,000 metric tons of menhaden in the bay in 2018, since the best fishing that year was in the Atlantic Ocean. The company caught 141,000 metric tons in total, 93% of the authorized catch. The Reedville plant processed the menhaden into 8,000 metric tons of fish oil and 46,000 metric tons of fish meal.

In 2019, the Marine Stewardship Council certified Omega Protein's menhaden program as a "sustainable" wild-capture fishery. The certification process required two years, and involved hiring an independent adjudicator after environmental groups objected to the proposal.13

in 2019, Omega Protein got the Marine Stewardship Council to certify the menhaden fishery as sustainable
in 2019, Omega Protein got the Marine Stewardship Council to certify the menhaden fishery as "sustainable"
Source: Omega Protein, It's Official: Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Achieves MSC Sustainability Certification

The state legislature repeated the pattern in 2019 and declined to require Omega Protein to comply with the 51,000 metric ton limit. However, fishing patterns were different that year. Storms in the Atlantic Ocean made it safer to fish inside the Chesapeake Bay, and disrupted the menhaden schools in the Atlantic Ocean so purse seining was not possible at times.

By September, 2019, Omega Protein reported to state officials that it had exceeded the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission cap. A company spokesperson said:14

These schools have just been in a greater preponderance inside the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel as opposed to the last couple of years, which was outside of the Bay Bridge Tunnel, maybe hugging the coast of the Eastern Shore...

...So if weather is inclement in the ocean, our only option at that point is do we catch fish in the Chesapeake Bay or do we just tie up at the dock as we try to conserve the state cap?... We made the decision that we were going to harvest these fish and make sure that our employees continued to get their paychecks every week.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represented the unionized workers for Omega Protein, made clear that it supported the company's decision to exceed the cap:15

This month, Omega Protein could have shut down fishing in the Bay early, but that would have meant sending our members into the Atlantic to fish in unpredictable, and potentially unsafe conditions. We are pleased that Omega put safety first, and kept our members fishing safely in the Bay.

in 2019, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 expressed support for Omega Protein exceeding the limit inside the Chesapeake Bay
in 2019, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 expressed support for Omega Protein exceeding the limit inside the Chesapeake Bay
Source: United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had the option on initiating a non-compliance finding and forwarding recommended actions to the Secretary of Commerce. The menhaden panel of the commission started that process in October, 2019. It was the first step required to trigger a moratorium on fishing for menhaden in Federal waters.

The vote was unanimous; even Virginia's representative endorsed it. A commercial fisherman who served as the Rhode Island representative to the commission expressed his frustration at Virginia's failure to protect the menhaden from overfishing:16

I got boats sitting at the dock too. And when the fed said fishing is over, we stayed tied to the dock. We didn't write a letter saying "hey I've got 150 employees as well and we need to make money and we're going." We stopped... It kinda rubs my nose in it a little bit. I don't care for it.

Such a ban would require action by Wilbur Ross, Secretary of the Department of Commerce in the Trump Administration. In 2017, he declined to honor recommendations by fisheries managers when he allowed New Jersey to continue to overharvest the summer flounder stock, ignoring the commission's proposed limits on size limit and daily catch. New Jersey politicians had lobbied the Secretary of Commerce to prioritize the short-term benefits for the state's tourism economy over the long-term need to restore the summer flounder population.

The failure to act in 2017 was the first time since the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was formed in 1942 that its recommendations were not followed by the Secretary of Commerce. In response to the failure to act on New Jersey overfishing, the chair of the commission said:17

The states have a 75‐year track record of working together to successfully manage their shared marine resources... Our focus moving forward will be to preserve the integrity of the Commission’s process, as established by the Atlantic Coastal Act, whereby, the states comply with the management measures we collectively agree upon.

Source: Pew, Help Save Menhaden: Quite Possibly, the Most Important Fish in the Sea

Natural resource management clearly involves a requirement to understand politics as well as science. The commission was reluctant to create another precedent where a political appointee in the Federal government might give Virginia's politicians the opportunity to prioritize local short-term economic benefits over regional long-term resource protection.

A potential excuse for delay was to allow time for publication of two scientific studies in early 2020. One study was designed to assess the fishery from an ecological management perspective, and how the harvest affected food sources and behavior of other species such as striped bass and osprey. The commission's shift from single-species management to an ecosystem approach started with menhaden; it was the pioneer species for the new process.

The other study was designed to refine the number of menhaden present in the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Menhaden were increasing in waters off New England, but the population levels within the Chesapeake Bay were declining.18

Waiting for those studies before responding to the over-fishing would allow the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to make recommendations when the General Assembly would be in session. The legislators could then claim they needed more time to assess the studies. One political option was to delay a request for action by the Secretary of Commerce until after the 2020 presidential election. Even if President Trump was re-elected, the odds were high that he would appoint a new Secretary of Commerce in his second term.

However, the full Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission found Virginia to be out of compliance with the Chesapeake Bay Reduction Fishery Cap. The Virginia commissioner was a new representative. The previous one had emphasized that menhaden were not a declining stock when their overall range was considered, and the science did not demonstrate a localized depletion of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay. Taking no action would have been consistent with Omega Protein's claim that the limits on menhaden fishing proposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission were arbitrary and not based on science.

The new commissioner from Virginia apologized for the situation, and in late 2019 he voted for Federal action to stop the overfishing within the bay.

That vote initiated a requirement for the US Secretary of Commerce to make a decision:19

Upon notification by the Commission, the Secretary of Commerce has 30 days to review the recommendation and determine appropriate action, which may include a federal moratorium on fishing for or possessing Atlantic menhaden in the Commonwealth’s state waters.

In response to the action by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Gov. Ralph Northam wrote to the Secretary of Commerce and endorsed an immediate Federal freeze on menhaden fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. The letter was sent when Omega Protein's fishing operations in the Chesapeake Bay were scheduled to end, but a Federal moratorium would stop menhaden fishing in the Atlantic Ocean before that season ended.

The company continued to contest the claim that there was excessive harvest. The fish it caught in the Chesapeake Bay in 2019 had, in previous years, schooled in the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles away. Omega Protein did not accept that the menhaden population was overfished simply because the schools were on the bay side of Cape Charles/Cape Henry in 2019 rather than on the ocean side.

Like the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Gov. Northam had a platform to express an opinion but no authority to actually affect the fishing season or harvest levels. The Virginia General Assembly had all authority over menhaden management by the state of Virginia. The US Secretary of Commerce had control over harvest levels in Federal waters (three miles and further offshr) hrough the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and in state waters through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

An Omega Protein spokesperson expressed the company's opinion that the reduced harvest level for the Chesapeake Bay, the 51,000 metric ton limit, was set by non-scientific criteria, with an objective other than maintaining a sustainable population of menhaden:20

Politics is how we got the 41% cut, and politics is why there's this call for the moratorium.

factories to reduce Atlantic menhaden to oil and protein scrap were once located along the entire coastline
factories to "reduce" Atlantic menhaden to oil and protein scrap were once located along the entire coastline
Source: A History of the Menhaden (1880), (Figure 12)

One political factor was the purchase of Omega Protein by a Canadian company. Foreign ownership was emphasized in a Letter to the Editor from the chair of the Virginia Agricultural Council, as he highlighted the opinion that over-fishing of the menhaden was causing rockfish to feed outside the Chesapeake Bay:21

...the Chesapeake Bay is home to the largest striped bass (rockfish) nursery in the world and there has been much talk about the decline of rockfish in Virginia waters for years now. I can tell you why, and it's pretty simple.

There used to be trillions of these filter-feeding, bottom-of-the-food-chain, high-protein fish in our waters. A now-foreign-owned company, Omega Protein in Reedville, continues to harvest an estimated 50,000 metric tons of menhaden out of the bay every year and grind them up for feed additives and profit. This is the only fish in Virginia still managed by our state legislature. Why? Lobbying and campaign money keep it this way.

If I took all the groceries out of your store, would you continue to travel to that store?

In December 2019, the Federal government agreed to the request from Gov. Northam and eight other governments of states in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notified the commission:22

A moratorium on fishing for Atlantic menhaden in Virginia state waters and possession of and landing of Atlantic menhaden if harvested in Virginia state waters will be imposed effective June 17, 2020.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission timed its request for a moratorium on catching menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay (the state waters of value to Omega Protein) to trigger a Federal response after the 2019 fishing season had ended, and long before the 2020 season started the following summer.

The scheduling also gave Omega Protein six months to work with the menhaden fishery regulators and agree on maximum harvest levels, so the moratorium could be lifted before the fishing season began.

If the moratorium did remain in place throughout 2020, or if commercial menhaden fishing was eliminated in the Chesapeake Bay and allowed only in the Atlantic Ocean, the economic impacts on Reedville would have been substantial. A 2017 economic impact study on closure of Omega Protein estimated it would reduce local employment by 8%, and cause a 14% drop in incomes within Northumberland County.23

Both the company and the General Assembly were unwilling to cede authority over Virginia's menhaden harvest to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. When the Secretary of the Department of Commerce chose to support the commission's decision, the legislators, the corporation, and the union representing 90% of Omega Protein's fishermen negotiated a deal.

The General Assembly abandoned its unique control of the menhaden fishery during the legislature's 2020 session. Fear of Federal control finally convinced the legislators to transfer responsibility for managing the menhaden harvest to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission gained authority to regulate menhaden harvest, but with some constraints. Regulations for each year had to be completed by December 31 of the previous year, ensuring the company had adequate time to plan for its capital expenses and retire boats that might become excess equipment.

One delegate from the Eastern Shore noted that transferring the responsibility to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) did not guarantee that menhaden harvests would be based on scientific data. He commented as the negotiations were being resolved:24

To say that the VMRC is not political is naive... You have eight members appointed by the governor. It’s as political as we are here.

Omega Protein planned to start fishing in 2020 with all of its seven boats based at Reedville. At the start of the season in May, most of the menhaden are caught west of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and that harvest will not be affected by the tight Chesapeake Bay limit. The company anticipated it would need to tie some up some boats at the dock, once the fish schools moved in the summer months from the ocean into the Chesapeake Bay.

Regarding how employment would be affected by the harvest limits, a spokesperson stated:25

This year will be a trial run for us... It's all going to depend on the weather and where the fish are.

In its first action after receiving authority to manage the menhaden harvest, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission chose to reduce the Chesapeake Bay quota below the 51,000 tons cap proposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It set the 2020 cap at slightly more than 36,000 tons. The 14,000 ton difference matched the overharvest in 2019.

The state agency said it would raise the cap to 51,000 tons in 2021, provided Omega Protein did not exceed the 36,000 ton level in 2020. The company was not given credit for its below-the-cap catches in 2017 (19,500 tons) and in 2018 (31,000 tons). The fisheries managers declined to use a five-year running average to conclude Omega Protein's catches were sustainable, and declined to agree with the company's claims that there was no scientific basis for the 51,000 ton cap.

Omega Protein planned to use all nine boats in 2020, but have them spend most of their time catching menhaden in the Atlantic Ocean rather than in the Chesapeake Bay.26

Omega Protein remained a division of Cooke Inc., a Canadian company, but the fishing vessels were sold to an independent company. Ocean Harvesters became a contractor for Omega Protein.

The political debate over menhaden fishing limits did not affect Omega Protein's commitment to Northumberland County. In 2020, Northumberland County's largest private employer relocated its headquarters from Houston, Texas to Reedville. After an investment of a $1.3 million, senior executives moved to a refurbished building next to the Morris-Fisher Stack (the "Old Stack").26

Omega Protein received a sustainability certification by the Marine Stewardship Council, after a two-year review, in September 2019. Companies purchasing Omega-3 fatty acids and other products derived from menhaden to make final products for sale to environmentally-conscious customers required the certification.

The determination by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that the Chesapeake Bay Reduction Fishery Cap had been exceeded triggered an expedited audit report. The certification could be revoked, since one of the three core Marine Stewardship Council principles included the requirement that the fishery must comply with relevant laws.

Omega Protein advertised its focus on health and sustainability
Omega Protein advertised its focus on health and sustainability
Source: Omega Protein

The expedited audit report was completed in March, 2020. It concluded that the 51,000 metric ton cap within the Chesapeake Bay, intended to prevent localized depletion of menhaden, was precautionary rather than not explicitly science-based. Despite the failure of the Commonwealth of Virginia to enforce the cap in 2019, the audit determined that the "current legal framework for the fishery remains on balance effective and predictable."

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation criticized the decision, saying it created a black eye for the entire certification process. The decision allowed Omega Protein to continue to highlight the seal of approval from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in its marketing. The company commented on its impact:28

When buyers purchase seafood products with the blue MSC label, they can be sure they come from a sustainable fishery that has met the MSC Fisheries standard. This certification will differentiate our fishmeal and oil products from competitors on the global market.

Later in 2020, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made a major shift in its management of marine resources and chose to use an "ecological reference point" for setting future menhaden catch limits. Instead of managing menhaden populations independently, the commission decided to evaluate the impact of future menhaden harvest limits on other species.

Consideration of ecosystem impacts led to a final decision to lower the overall 2021 and 2022 harvest cap by another 10%. That reduction was not specific to the Chesapeake Bay, whose target was not modified further. Not surprisingly, Omega Proteins had proposed no reduction. Some members of the commission had proposed a deeper cut, since there was a 50% chance of the harvest ultimately exceeding the target.

For the 2023 season, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission retained the cap in the Chesapeake Bay at 51,000 metric tons but raised the ceiling on the Atlantic Coast fishery by 20% to 233,550 metric tons. The decision was based on a population assessment that indicated the species was not overfished.

The quota for the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia was raised only slightly. A higher percentage of the authorized catch was allocated to commercial harvesters in New England, which used menhaden for lobster traps. As a result of that decision, Omega Protein was not expected to increase its workforce of 260 employees at Reedville.

A low menhaden cap might not be required to maintain the population of that species, but could be a factor in maintaining the population of striped bass. Striped bass feed on menhaden, and keeping an "excess" of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean might help striped bass populations recover to the desired level of that species.29

the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association argues that lower limits of menhaden harvest would increase food for striped bass
the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association argues that lower limits of menhaden harvest would increase food for striped bass
Source: Wikipedia

Occasionally, a net will tear when the Ocean Harvesters boats working for Omega Proteins are catching menhaden. If the tear occurs when the net is tight and the boat close to pumping the fish into its hold, then the survival rate of the fish dropped out of the net is poor. If a tear occcurs where the fish wash onto a nearby beach, large pools of dead fish become a public relations issue as well as a resource management issue.

Ocean Harvesters reported in 2021 that over the last four years, nets had been set 10,000 times and there had been 12 tears, with just three in the Chesapeake Bay and the rest in the Atlantic Ocean. Total spills were estimated to be less than 1% of the annual harvest cap.30

menhaden fish kills impact recreational opportunities on beaches in Massachusetts as well as in Virginia
menhaden fish kills impact recreational opportunities on beaches in Massachusetts as well as in Virginia
Source: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, DSCN0404 - Mystic River Fish Kill

The relative rarity provided little solace to people on July 5, 2022 who were planning to spend the Fourth of July weekend at Silver Beach, on the bay side of Northampton County. Ocean Harvesters was catching menhaden for delivery to Omega Protein's rendering plant in Reedville. A net broke, causing dead menhaden to cover the beach.

The smell of the rotting fish made the beach unusable for recreation. After a cleanup crew gathered the fish off the beach, the fish-filled dumpsters were left in a local parking lot for several days because both the Accomack and Northampton county landfills refused to accept the organic waste. Accomack County categorized the dumpters as filled with waste from an "industrial accident," and the landfill was for residential waste only.31

A second wave of dead fish reached the beach at Kiptopeke State Park, Pickett Harbor, and Sunset Beach later in July. An Ocean Harvesters vessel caught large red drum in a net. The net was opened to release the "bycatch," and once again many dead fish washed ashore. One vacationer told the local TV station:32

We came down about 9:30 with wheel barrows, shovels, rakes and we've just been burying them so we can salvage the vacation. It could be days before we get the smell out of here or get these fish out of here. Not quite enjoyable...

After the spill, the chair of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors noted the geographic imbalance between costs and benefits of a menhaden fishery in which all the jobs were based in Reedville (Northumberland County):33

Here in Northampton County, we don't gain from Omega’s actions at all, and yet we had dead fish up and down about 15 miles of our coastline to cope with.

The two incidents led to another round of calls from reacreational angling advocates, such as the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, and pople concerned about overfished the menhaden population. They pushed for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to permit large-scale industrial menhaden fishing only in the Atlantic Ocean and eliminate it from the Chesapeake Bay. Small-scale commercial fishing for bait fish, used in crab pots, would still be permitted. Pressure included presenting a petition in October, 2022 with 11,000 signatures to the office of Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The president of Ocean Harvesters said the two spills in 2022 cost $250,000 to clean up. He claimed:34

We don't fish on weekends in the bay. We don't fish on major holidays... to avoid those user conflicts. And it's an industry that pumps probably $100 million or more into Virginia's economy, especially a small very rural area. And it's all Virginians except for three North Carolinians that work at that facility.

At th end of 2022, Omega Protein and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission agreed that fishing for menhaden would be banned for 1/2 mile from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The company also agreed not to fish in the Chesapeake Bay on Memorial and Labor Day weekends, and on the July 4 weekend.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted 5-4 to accept the agreement, rather than establish a legally-binding requirement. A spokesperson for Omega said the company was committed to the deal:35

You don't get to stay in business as long as we have by breaking agreements.

Aquaculture in Virginia: Fish Hatcheries

How a Fish Sees Virginia

"The Northern Neck" Is Not "The Peninsula"


because menhaden travel in schools, purse seines were used to catch menhaden even before steam-powered vessels were common
because menhaden travel in schools, purse seines were used to catch menhaden even before steam-powered vessels were common
Source: A History of the Menhaden (1880, Figure 12)


1. "Menhaden," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), (last checked December 3, 2011)
2. "Menhaden Fish Industry," Virginia Farming video, November 7, 2014,; "Reedville & Museum History," Reedville Fisherman's Museum,; "Virginia menhaden fishery avoids shutdown," Bay Journal, June 5, 2020,; "Economic Profile," Northumberland County Chamber of Commerce, (last checked June 13, 2020)
3. "Omega Protein fined $7.5 million for polluting Chesapeake Bay," Daily News (Newport News), June 4, 2013,,0,4827741.story; "Omega Protein assessed $5.5M in U.S. penalties," The Virginian-Pilot, June 5, 2013, (last checked June 5, 2013)
4. "Menhaden harvest limit sharply cut by fisheries commission," Washington Post, November 9, 2011, (last checked December 2, 2012)
5. S. Gordon Rogers, Michael J. Van Den Avyle, "Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (South Atlantic) - Atlantic Menhaden," US Fish and Wildlife Service, FWS OBS-82111.11, October 1983, (last checked April 8, 2013)
6. "Menhaden Background," Virginia Institute of Marine Science, (last checked December 3, 2011)
7. "State Of Our Bay: A Fish Called Menhaden," Chesapeake Bay Magazine, October 2006,; Office of Attorney General, Commonwealth of Virginia, "Fisheries And Habitat Of The Tidal Waters: Compacts And Joint Laws With Other States - Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Compact," Opinion No. 06-002, January 31, 2006, (last checked June 19, 2014)
8. Alison Fairbrother, "A Fish Story," Washington Monthly, May/June 2012, (last checked June 19, 2014)
9. Beau Beasley, "Should Virginia Secede from the Menhaden Union?," Southern Maryland Online, January 24, 2012,; "ASMFC votes to reduce commercial menhaden landings," Bay Journal, December 1, 2011, (last checked April 8, 2013)
10. "Atlantic fisheries commission limits menhaden catch," Washington Post, December 14, 2012,; "Delegates pass bill to reduce menhaden harvest; 25 jobs at risk," Newport News Daily News, January 29, 2013,; "Industry-Wide Reductions Begin as Menhaden Cap Becomes Law," Saving Menhaden Fisheries, March 6, 2013, (last checked April 8, 2013)
11. "Omega reconstitutes Reedville fleet, cuts workers," Newport News Daily Press, May 23, 2013,,0,1136049.story (last checked May 26, 2013)
12. "New review of menhaden stock reveals population is in good shape," Bay Journal, February 23, 2015, (last checked March 5, 2015)
13. "VA won't be penalized over menhaden regs if it stays under cap," The Bay Journal, March 5, 2019,; "It's Official: Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Achieves MSC Sustainability Certification," Omega Protein, September 3, 2019,; "Cooke Inc. acquires Omega Protein Corporation," Omega Protein, December 19, 2019,; "Omega Protein celebrates Vermilion launch in Louisiana," Seafood Source, April 12, 2018, (last checked September 23, 2019) 14. "Omega to exceed the cap," Northumberland Echo, September 18, 2018,; "In a Year of Fines, Settlements and Bad Weather, Omega Protein Corp. Once Again Oversteps Environmental Boundaries," Free Lance-Star, September 23, 2019, (last checked September 23, 2019)
15. "UFCW Local 400 Supports Omega Protein’s Actions to Keep Workers Fishing," United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, September 23, 2019, (last checked February 18, 2010)
16. "The One that Didn't Get Away: The Atlantic's Largest Menhaden Fishing Fleet Faces Penalties," WVTF, November 31, 2019,; "Virginia at risk of sanctions after Omega announces it will exceed menhaden cap," Virginia Mercury, October 29, 2019, (last checked November 1, 2019)
17. "ASMFC Blasts Secretary Ross Decision on Summer Flounder in Favor of New Jersey’s Recreational Sector," Saving Seafood, July 18, 2017,; "Regulators say Virginia firm caught more menhaden in Bay than allowed. Feds will decide what happens," The Virginian-Pilot, October 28, 2019, (last checked October 30, 2019)
18. "In a Year of Fines, Settlements and Bad Weather, Omega Protein Corp. Once Again Oversteps Environmental Boundaries," Free Lance-Star, September 23, 2019,; Draft Proceedings of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, August 6, 2019, p.3, p.6,; "Atlantic Menhaden Chesapeake Bay Reduction Fishery Harvest," Memorandum from James J. Gilmore, Chair of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, September 19, 2019, (last checked September 23, 2019)
19. "ASMFC Finds the Commonwealth of Virginia Out of Compliance with Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden," Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, October 31, 2019 news release,; "For Omega Protein Corporation, the tide may be changing," Free Lance-Star, November 2, 2019, (last checked November 4, 2019)
20. "Gov. Ralph Northam calls for freeze on menhaden fishing after company broke Bay catch limit," The Virginian-Pilot, November 21, 2019, (last checked November 22, 2019)
21. "Letter to the Editor, Nov. 24, 2019: General Assembly enables overfishing of rockfish," Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 24, 2019, (last checked November 24, 2019)
22. "Federal government orders Virginia menhaden fishery shut down," Virginia Mercury, December 19, 2019, (last checked December 20, 2019)
23. "Last of its kind, fishery faces reckoning in Chesapeake Bay," Associated Press, February 11, 2020, (last checked February 12, 2020)
24. "Menhaden regulations have plagued lawmakers for decades. Why were they able to find a fix this year?," Virginia Mercury, February 17, 2020, (last checked October 27, 2022)
25. "Virginia will cut its Chesapeake menhaden catch limit under bill passed by state lawmakers," Daily Press, February 28, 2020, (last checked March 1, 2020)
26. "Chesapeake Bay's menhaden catch cut drastically, along with Omega Protein quota," Daily Press, April 28, 2020, (last checked April 28, 2020)
27. "Omega Protein headquarters return to Reedville," Northern Neck News, March 4, 2020, (last checked March 6, 2020)
28. "Little fish, big worry: Future of menhaden sparks concern," Associated Press, October 1, 2017,; "Atlantic Menhaden achieves MSC certification," Marine Stewardship Council, September 3, 2019,; "Expedited Audit Report," Marine Stewardship Council, March 21, 2020, p.11, p.20,; "Fish-oil firm keeps 'sustainable' label despite controversy," Associated Press, April 2, 2020, (last checked April 3, 2020)
29. "Menhaden decision marks a new era in Atlantic fisheries management," Virginia Mercury, August 6, 2020,; "Atlantic coast’s menhaden fishing haul cut by 10% for 2021 and 2022," Daily Press, October 20, 2020,; "Menhaden quota cut 10 percent as fisheries managers weigh ecosystem impacts," Virginia Mercury, October 21, 2020,; "Increase approved for menhaden harvest along the Atlantic Coast," Bay Journal, November 11, 2022, (last checked November 11, 2022)
30. "Minutes," Virginia Marine Resources Commission Menhaden Management Advisory Committee (MMAC), November 9, 2021,\85\33225\Minutes_MRC_33225_v1.pdf (last checked November 22, 2021)
31. "Menhaden Removed From Silver Beach but Stench of Fish Spill Remains," Eastern Shore Post, July 14, 2022, (last checked July 15, 2022)
32. "Second Wave: Dead fish wash up on Eastern Shore beaches twice in 3 weeks," WAVY, July 26, 2022, (last checked July 28, 2022)
33. "Petitions, spills, empty coolers: Menhaden controversy broils in Virginia," Bay Journal, November 9, 2022, (last checked November 10, 2022)
34. "Two Menhaden fish spills cost $250K," News on the Neck, September 28, 2022,; "Sportfishing group presents petition to move Omega Protein out of Chesapeake Bay," Virginia Mercury, October 27, 2022, (last checked October 27, 2022)
35. "Omega Protein fishery agrees to new menhaden restrictions, but environmental groups say they're not enough," The Virginian-Pilot, December 8, 2022, (last checked December 9, 2022)

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