The House of Delegates on Tuesday killed a bill, opposed by an influential Northern Neck commercial fishing operation, that would have brought Virginia into compliance with new menhaden catch limits adopted last fall by a consortium of Atlantic states.
Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, made a motion to send his House Bill 1610, which had been sent down by Gov. Ralph Northam last month, back to committee, effectively spiking it for the year.
In an interview, Knight said he did so in hopes that Northam’s administration and Omega Protein would continue negotiations on catch quotas in the Chesapeake Bay and other provisions of a fall decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that cut Virginia’s share of the overall harvest and the tonnage Omega can catch in the bay.
Omega, a major state political donor recently bought by Canadian seafood company Cooke Inc., operates the only “reduction fishery” on the Atlantic coast, a fleet of boats and plant in Reedville that turn thousands of tons of the fish into oil and meal each year for products that range from dietary supplements to pet food.
Knight’s bill squeaked out of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee and faced another tight vote on the House floor, he said.
“I just didn’t need to drive a wedge,” Knight said, adding that he consulted with Northam’s administration, which concurred with the decision to pull the bill. “We would rather try to get along with everyone and negotiate than bring a hammer in there.”
In November, even as it increased the overall catch limit by 8 percent, the commission cut Virginia’s share of the menhaden catch coastwide and slashed the cap for Omega’s harvest in the bay by 41.5 percent. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe appealed the new limits but Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration reversed the move.
The commission’s decision came amid pressure from groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which is worried about what it says have been low numbers of young menhaden observed in the bay for 20 years. Sport fishermen say the fact that Omega hasn’t caught its quota in the bay for years means menhaden numbers there are declining, which means less food for larger species such as striped bass.
Knight said he hoped the appeals process could be an avenue for working out a deal, though a spokesman for Northam, a Democrat from the Eastern Shore who made restoring the bay a key piece of his campaign, said the new administration has “no intention” of participating.
“The general conclusion was the legislation was not likely to pass,” the spokesman, Brian Coy said of Knight’s bill. “We were aware of that so we’ll live to fight another day.”
Before the House committee, Omega and its unionized fishermen and shoreside workers blasted the quota as not based in science and a threat to a long-tenured major employer in Northumberland County.
Menhaden is the only species in Virginia regulated by the General Assembly instead of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Knight has unsuccessfully pushed bills for years to change that.
“I’d like to put it in the purview of scientists. I think the scientists probably know more than legislators from western Virginia,” Knight said. “Omega is a very powerful industry. ... They have a powerful union and they are a major employer in the area.”
Ben Landry, an Omega spokesman, said last week that the company prefers “140 sets of eyes” on the menhaden fishery.
“We just think eight politically appointed people who aren’t subject to the votes of the people can become highly politicized,” Landry said of the state marine commission. He added that the General Assembly has “access to the same VMRC professionals that that commission does.”
Northam’s administration had warned that failure to pass the legislation could put Virginia out of compliance with the commission’s decision and risk a federal closure of the menhaden fishery, which Omega sees as unlikely.
“No matter how remote, the governor thought that was an unacceptable risk and an avoidable one,” Coy said.
Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said it takes “a number of steps” for a state to be found out of compliance, including a review by the commission’s menhaden board.
“The board would need to meet and consider what Virginia is putting forth and make an evaluation as to whether they are compliant with the mandatory measures of the amendment,” she said. The earliest that meeting could happen, Berger noted, is the first week of May.