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 - also known as mossbunker, fatbacks, bunker, alewife, and pogy - also strain phytoplankton and zooplankton from the water, filtering and converting excessive amounts of algae into fish protein. Other fish (especially striped bass or "stripers") then feed on the menhaden, as do ospreys and bald eagles.
Menhaden populations are lower than in the 1960's-1980's. 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. Instead, menhaden is cooked to extract the oil, "reducing" it to extract the oil. The squished/cooked remains of the menhaden 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
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. Today, menhaden stocks are dramatically reduced, primarily due to overharvesting. The only fish refinery left on the East Coast is at Reedville in Northumberland County, where Omega Protein cooks menhaden to separate it into fish oil (used for Omega-3 diet supplements) and protein for animal meal.
Fish processing 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).2
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. Conservationists regularly battle 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.3
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.4
As described by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science:5
catching menhaden in a purse net, after surrounding a school
Source: Omega Protein, Shareholder Presentation (May 17, 2011)
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 is the only species where the General Assembly itself manages 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, the General Assembly of Virginia ensured that the Virginia Marine Resources Commission would not have the option to limit the catch of menhaden, except with the approval of the General Assembly.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is 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.)
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 2006.6
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.7
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 Reeedville area proposed Virginia should withdraw from the commission, though the state would still be obliged to comply with the new limit.8
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.
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.9
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.10
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.11
The General Assembly still retains authority over menhaden harvest levels in Virginia. Any limits beyond those imposed by the ASMFC in 2012, such as a complete ban on commercial harvest in the state waters within the three-mile zone, would require approval by the Virginia legislature.