Virginians are seeing a staggering decline in osprey nestling survival rates, declining striped bass stocks, and damage to sea grasses in the Chesapeake Bay. I have lived on its waterways most of my life and have witnessed first-hand this downward trend in the health of the bay.
It’s time for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to take notice.
That’s why I, along with retired conservationist Andy Cortez, recently submitted formal requests to state agencies to protect the bay and its wildlife.
I had never met Andy until we met through a Facebook group (“Menhaden – Little Fish, Big Deal!”) and began communicating concerns about overfishing of menhaden in the Gulf. Menhaden are small, oily fish that act as fish. The base of the Gulf’s marine food web. Species ranging from osprey to redfish to bottlenose dolphins depend on it. But one foreign-owned company, Omega Protein, removes more than 100 million pounds of menhaden from the Gulf each year, reducing it in factories. In fish meal, fish oil, pet food and other products.
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Andy and I discussed how we as citizens could address the problem, and our research ultimately led us to a petition process with the state. Each of us has raised specific concerns, but our opposition is united around the same serious issue: damage to the Chesapeake region caused by industrial fisheries.
My application to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) called for regulation of nets used by industrial fisheries in specific areas of the Gulf. The fishery currently uses quarter-mile nets at depths of 50 feet to 60 feet, whether operating in the open Atlantic or in the shallow areas of the Gulf. When used in shallow waters where nets cannot extend, they destroy seagrass habitats while preventing the escape of larger fish that feed on menhaden.
Dragging nets along the bottom also increases the risk of them snagging, leading to “spills” where thousands of dead fish float away and get lost, eventually ending up on our beaches. Many of us are aware that there were major fish spills on the Eastern Shore last year, as occurred at Silver Beach and Kiptopiki State Park.
It’s a simple solution. The VMRC must implement reasonable regulations regarding the permissible depth for the use of artificial nets in shallow waters to meet the current design of trawl nets and prevent contact with the sea bottom.
After the menhaden are caught using the nets described above, the fish are compressed into a tight ball, the liquid is extracted and the waste is expelled when the fish dies. The mass of dead fish is then suctioned into the vessel via a vacuum pump where the fish and contaminated water are separated. The fish goes to the warehouse for profit, and the pollution goes straight back into the bay.
Everyone knows that fish emulsion is an excellent fertilizer, but bay already contains a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus. This is where Andy’s petition calls on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to regulate these pollutant discharges under existing state and federal laws. Billions of dollars and 40 years of effort have been focused on improving water quality in the Gulf. Despite these efforts, the investigation goals set for 2025 will likely not be met. Andy’s water quality-oriented request is another way to help address this issue.
Efforts to reduce the impacts of menhaden fisheries have previously been undertaken by organizations such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Association, which work with other regional and national groups to protect the Menhaden Bay population and the fish and wildlife they support. This same coalition supports us now.
So far, industry resistance and political influence have prevented the implementation of serious measures to protect the Gulf and its cities. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality have the opportunity to do what a series of past and present Virginia politicians have failed to do: act now on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay, before it is too late.
Bill Dunn is a recreational fisherman who has lived on the Chesapeake Bay most of his life. Contact Dunn at Rappa57@gmail.com.