Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Menhaden Madness: Virginia Anglers ‘Muscled Out’ by Menhaden Vessels

Menhaden are hauled up in a net. Image via NOAA.

A long-simmering dispute between recreational fishermen and the industrial fleet targeting forage fish came to a boil this week in waters along the Virginia coast, as charter boat captains saw their fishing go “from great to zero” after seining vessels scooped up thousands of Atlantic menhaden close to shore.

Recreational fishermen and charter boat businesses depend on schools of prey species such as menhaden to attract sportfish. Charter boat captain Trick Standing told the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk that fishing in the Virginia Beach area had been very good recently until the arrival of massive vessels operated by Omega Protein, the largest menhaden fishing company.

“Since the menhaden boats were here Monday, it’s gone,” Standing told reporter Lee Tolliver. “It’s horrible. There’s nothing there right now.”

Another captain quoted in the story, David Wright, said “Everything we’re fishing for follows the bait around. Fishing is lousy after they wipe out everything.”

One charter boat company posted videos online, showing the Omega Protein vessels, known locally as “bunker boats,” fishing within sight of a beach. The anglers also complained that Omega’s boats frequently spill catch from nets, leaving thousands of dead fish and an oily film floating on the water.

Omega Protein takes about 300 million pounds of the fish a year, making it by far the dominant player in the menhaden business, which is the largest fishery by volume on the Atlantic Coast. The company “reduces” the fish by grinding and heating them to produce fish oil and fish meal products.

Omega spokesperson Monty Diehl told the Virginian-Pilot that the company’s boats only go near Virginia Beach “if we can’t find anything anywhere else.”

Author Bruce Franklin has dubbed the Atlantic menhaden “the most important fish in the sea” because this crucial species feeds ocean wildlife from predator fish to whales to ospreys. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing for menhaden, took a major step this spring toward managing menhaden in a way that protects its ecological role.

If the news from Virginia is any indication, more action may be needed to protect against localized depletion of menhaden and the damage from spilled catches.


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