Recreational Fishing Groups Endorse Virginia Petition to Restrict Depth of Industrial Menhaden Fishing Nets

By August 2, 2023Uncategorized

Contact: Sean Ryan

Use of 60-foot-deep purse seine nets in shallow waters causing damage to Chesapeake Bay habitat and seabed


Washington, D.C., Aug. 1, 2023 – A coalition of recreational fishing and boating groups is endorsing a petition that calls on the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) to improve regulation of the massive industrial nets that annually harvest millions of menhaden from the shallow waters in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

Menhaden are small fish that provide an essential food source for many larger fish species, including striped bass, redfish, and other economically important sportfish, as well as marine mammals and birds.

The recently filed petition urges the state’s fishery regulators to limit the allowable fishing zones based on the depth of the large “purse seine” nets that currently extend as much as 60 feet down, including in shallower areas of the estuary, which, the petition states, is causing fish spills, the unintended netting of game fish, and damage to the seabed.

According to the petition, Ocean Harvesters, a subsidiary of Omega Protein and two other companies, is employing the 1,400-foot-long, 500-pound nets in crucial Bay habitat, and because the nets are deeper than much of the Bay itself, are causing damage to large amounts of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacing sea grasses and other bottom growth. The nets are also the culprit behind the massive fish spills of dead menhaden and game fish, such as red drum, washing onto Bay beaches in recent years, sometimes due to net tears. Red drum, striped bass, and other sportfish can be trapped inadvertently as the fish are unable to escape through the net bottom before the nets are “pursed” (i.e. closed), due to contact with the shallow seafloor.

The petition acknowledges that purse seine fishing in open water is “generally considered to be an efficient form of fishing,” but that is only the case when the net has “no contact with the seabed,” which is not the case under current practices by Ocean Harvesters.

“We need to protect Virginia shorelines, and the striped bass and other species that depend on these fragile seagrass habitats, from what is a damaging method of harvest,” says Jaclyn Higgins, Forage Fish Program Manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, one of the members of the coalition endorsing the petition. “Many sportfish rely on these shallow nearshore areas to spawn and take shelter. With so many iconic Bay species in peril, every action taken to protect them is a great step forward for Bay stewardship.”

The petition was filed by Bill Dunn, an avid fisherman who has lived on two of the major rivers off the Chesapeake Bay for most of his life. Dunn is a retired design and project manager of low voltage electronic systems including communications, security, and data.

“I hereby request that the VMRC implement regulations on the depth of these purse seine nets within the shallow waters of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay and offshore waters to meet the purse seine net design criterion in order to provide no contact with the seabed in order to eliminate these issues,” Dunn sets forth in the petition. “This could be implemented with a regulation such as ‘No Purse Seine net may be placed in any area of Virginia’s waters that is less than five-feet deeper than the depth of the actual net utilized.’”

The State of Maryland, whose boundaries share the Chesapeake Bay with the Commonwealth, does not allow such industrial menhaden harvesting in its area of the Bay.

The petition is aligned with several collective efforts to address the significant impacts that purse seining has on the delicate Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and the businesses and residents the Bay ecosystem supports. Menhaden are a primary food source for striped bass, and the Bay is home to the largest nursery for striped bass on the East Coast. As the petition states, more can be done to address ongoing known issues with industrial purse seining including fish spills, the unintended netting of gamefish, and damage to the seabed – critical nursery habitat.

“Anglers and others have long wondered about the damage these nets may be causing,” says Steve Atkinson, President of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “If these ships showed up tomorrow for the first time with these huge nets, would they be allowed in our bay without an environmental impact assessment? I think not.”

Among the conservation groups endorsing the petition are the TRCP, Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, American Sportfishing Association, Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, and Coastal Conservation Association.

“Anglers have taken significant conservation actions recently to address a struggling striped bass population in the Chesapeake Bay,” says Mike Waine, Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director for the American Sportfishing Association. “The petition provides common-sense solutions that would help address purse seining impacts to critical nursery habitats and bycatch of gamefish populations. We hope the industrial menhaden fishing industry can agree to such reasonable conservation measures as they tout their sustainable stewardship.”

“Industrial scale purse seines setting in shallow water so close to shore damages critical marine habitats, and when the nets snag the bottom, the result can be massive net spills that kill thousands of menhaden and red drum, which happened at least twice last summer. This practice undermines decades of conservation efforts to restore and protect the Chesapeake’s already fragile ecosystem,” says Capt. Chris Dollar, Coastal Conservation Association’s conservation consultant for Chesapeake Bay. “For years, Bay anglers have led by example to help rebuild a striper fishery that continues to face significant challenges. Enacting the actions outlined in the petition through regulation is both appropriate and warranted.”

“Not only does commercial menhaden fishing result in gamefish like red drum and striped bass being caught as bycatch, but purse seining can also scour the bottom and result in further habitat degradation,” says Chad Tokowicz, Government Relations Manager at the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “Removing critical aquatic vegetation, as well as tons of a crucial forage fish, compounds the negative environmental impacts of industrial menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay.”

The public is encouraged to comment online on the petition until August 21, 2023, through this link:

Kevin Hickson

Author Kevin Hickson

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