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Opinion The Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden are in trouble

Omega Protein's Menhaden processing plant in Reedville, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Phil Zalesak is president of the Southern Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization.

Overharvesting of Atlantic menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay is destroying regional commercial and recreational fisheries. And it needs to stop now.

Menhaden, called the most important fish in the bay by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, are an important food source for predator fish, including striped bass, bluefish and weakfish, and birds and whales.

Omega Protein, a Canadian-owned company located in Reedville, Va., is allocated more than 70 percent of total allowable menhaden catch for the entire Atlantic Coast and more than 26 percent of the total allowable catch from the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Clearly, this is overharvesting a critical forage fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages the fisheries for the Commerce Department, has determined that there are not enough Atlantic menhaden on the Atlantic Coast to ensure the survivability of the critical predator fish.

In August 2020, the commission lowered the Atlantic Coast total allowable harvest by 10 percent to improve the survivability of these predators. The total harvest was lowered from 216,000 metric tons to 192,456 metric tons.

However, the commission did nothing to reduce the industrial reduction fishery cap of 51,000 metric tons for the Chesapeake Bay. In other words, Omega Protein can harvest 26.5 percent of the total allowable catch for the entire Atlantic Coast from the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

This overharvesting has had a devastating impact on the commercial harvest of striped bass, bluefish and weakfish over the past 22 years, with declines in harvest of 34 percent, 76 percent and 98 percent, respectively.

Virginia is the last state on the East Coast to allow industrial reduction fishing. Maryland stopped it years ago. North Carolina’s last reduction fishery closed in 2005.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission should be leading the charge on this. Where are they?

The solution to this devastation is to limit Atlantic menhaden reduction fishing to outside the three-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone along the Atlantic Coast.

Maryland’s and Virginia’s senators and representatives need to investigate this issue now. Overharvesting of menhaden is destroying Chesapeake Bay fisheries, which are important to the region’s commercial and recreational industries — and to the health of the bay itself.