Fish oil firm overfishing may lead to moratorium for Virginia

The Commerce Department is encouraging Virginia to clamp down on a business for reportedly exceeding catch limits of menhaden — a small, oily fish prized for its high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids.

The department notified a regional fishery commission Thursday that if Virginia cannot comply with limits on menhaden fishing by mid-June 2020, the department will call for a moratorium.

Nine governors, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, recently signed a letter urging the Trump administration to stop Omega Protein, a firm that produces fish-oil supplements, from operating in Virginia waters.

After the department announced it was taking action Thursday, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a statement applauding the decision.

Allison Colden, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said menhaden are often called the “most important fish in the sea.”

Menhaden, which are slightly bigger than sardines, are a food source for other fish, birds and mammals in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast.

“They’re an extremely important link in the food chain,” Colden said. Whales, ospreys and rockfish are among the species that feed on menhaden.

While the fish are prized as a source of omega-3 fatty acids for businesses such as Omega Protein, there’s another industry interested in maintaining a healthy population of the little fish, Colden said. “That’s folks who are using menhaden as bait in crab and lobster fisheries.”

Colden said businesses that rely on recreational fishing of species such as rockfish and red drum, for example, also depend on a healthy menhaden population. “Those people are threatened by the overfishing of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.”

In October, Omega Protein, based in Reedville, Virginia, issued a statement saying the cap on the menhaden fishery “has never been scientifically justified,” but added it would adhere to rulings by the Commerce Department, “whatever that ruling is.”

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