Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
Marine Resources Commission
Marine Resources Commission
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8/21/23  11:56 am
Commenter: Anonymous

1995 VIMS bycatch study proves this petition needs to move forward

The menhaden industry will say that their nets don’t scrape along the bottom because it would rip the net and be too expensive, but it is very obvious that there are many parts of the Bay that are shallower than 50 ft and fished by these massive boats (which draught between 10-14 ft on their own – let’s talk about prop scars). The industry says they only catch menhaden but that can’t possibly be true because we have data showing that they catch not only the typical predators that eat menhaden, like striped bass, bluefish, and Spanish mackerel, but bottom-dwelling species like blue crabs and summer flounder.


The only real bycatch study done in the Chesapeake Bay to see what else the menhaden industry is actually catching was back in 1995. On it’s own, this is a serious lack of oversight by the Commonwealth, since this fishery is the largest fishery by volume on the Atlantic coast, and it’s main harvest comes from our most important estuary. And just to be clear, this study was only done at the request of recreational anglers, who have been dealing with the damage done by the menhaden industry for years, as Bay fish stocks decline along with our entire economy and culture that relies on them.


This 1995 study was done by VIMS, where they made 43 total sets (2,513,000 individual menhaden), finding 21 other species caught up in the net as bycatch including: blue crabs, bluefish, butterfish, croaker, cownose rays, summer flounder, harvest fish, hog choker, lady crab, oyster toad, sandbar shark, silver perch, Spanish mackerel, spider crab, spot, squid, striped bass, thread herring, sea trout, witch flounder. I think it’s safe to say we don’t often see blue crab and flounder swimming at the surface, right? Again, the proof is in these 43 sets (a fraction of the likely thousands of sets the industry makes in the Bay each year – which we wouldn’t know about because the industry gets to keep their data confidential, go figure). Let’s also talk about striped bass. In the sets the researchers made in November alone, the menhaden industry caught 84 striped bass, with an average size of 34 inches! I think we all know what happened with stripers at the ASMFC this year: emergency action to make a 31-inch maximum size limit to protect the big spawning class. I wonder how many of those were allotted to Omega Protein with that action? Give me a break.


The VIMS study looked at Virginia bycatch laws and how the menhaden industry technically is within the law, due to two funny aspects: 1) bycatch is calculated as a percentage of catch (not really helpful in a purse seine fishery where you can have 50,000 fish in a net at once and just one 22-pound striper at the bottom, for example), and 2) the bycatch only have to be released if they’re considered food fish (doesn’t really help the cownose rays and sandbar sharks much, does it?). Apparently VMRC can enforce and interpret the law to their discretion, but how many menhaden sets have been observed since this study was done in 1995? My guess is 0.


Code of Virginia reference:

Ҥ 28.2-408. Food fish not to be taken, bought, or sold; percentage allowable; penalty.

A. It is unlawful to take, catch or round up with purse net, for any purpose, food fish in an amount greater than one percent of the whole catch. If food fish represent more than one percent of the whole catch, the net shall be opened immediately and the food fish released while alive.


B. It is unlawful for any vessel licensed for the purpose of menhaden fishing to catch any food fish for the purpose of marketing; for any person to have in his possession food fish in an amount greater than one percent of the bulk for the purpose of manufacturing them into fertilizer, fish meal, or oil; or for any person to use in any manner any food fish, in an amount greater than one percent of the bulk for the purpose of fertilizing or improving the soil.


C. Any person violating any provision of this section is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, and the license on such person's boat or net shall be revoked by court order for the remainder of the season.”


I’ll leave a few excerpts from the VIMS bycatch study here, and let the results speak for themselves:


  • “Bycatch species that could be harvested in large quantities (e.g., bluefish and Spanish mackerel) typically are below the menhaden and only after pumping begins can the captain or onboard enforcement personnel determine the potential magnitude of the bycatch.”


  • “As concluded in the VIMS study, however, we claim that it is the number of fish and invertebrates harvested rather than the weight or biomass that is critical for future populations of any given resource. That is, which is more important to future resource conditions, the loss of 5 one pound striped bass or the loss of one 5 pound striped bass? It must be recognized, though, that the number of fish by age or size is critical for defining future populations of any given species; juveniles do not spawn and larger animals are more fecund (i.e., have more eggs) or contribute more to the future population.”


  • “Total bycatch from the 43 sets was 5,338 fish and marine invertebrates. Relative to the number of menhaden harvested in the 43 sets, bycatch equalled 0.21%. Overall, the total harvested weight of menhaden from the 43 sets was 1,683,710 pounds. The weight of all bycatch was 9,845.9 pounds which equalled 0.585 percent of the harvested weight of menhaden. Bycatch in terms of weight relative to the weight of menhaden was higher than the percent of bycatch calculated using numbers of fish but well below the one percent legal limit.”


  • “For comparative purposes, we note that 24.0%, 8.3%, and 0.0% of the sets in August, October, and November exceeded one percent of the number of menhaden harvested. On a weight basis, the number of sets in which bycatch exceeded one percent of the harvested weight of menhaden was 32.0%, 0.0%, and 33.3% during August, October, and November, respectively. If we examine bycatch relative to food fish and discarded or released fish, however, there were no sets in August, October, or November in which the possession of bycatch exceeded one percent of the weight of the entire catch or the weight of menhaden.”


  • “The updated analysis did reveal, however, that the number of sets in which bycatch exceeded one percent did increase when weight rather than number of fish and marine invertebrates was used to assess bycatch.”


  • "It must be recognized, however, that the VIMS study and the updated analysis in this advisory offer, at best, a limited snapshot. The VIMS study was conducted in 1992 given resource conditions prevailing at the time. The focus of the VIMS study was to determine procedures for accurately assessing bycatch, test the procedures, and provide an assessment of bycatch relative to menhaden during 1992. The VIMS study could not assess bycatch relative to a wide range of resource conditions. Obviously, changes in the abundance of striped bass, bluefish, or other species could cause a change in bycatch relative to menhaden or alter the composition of bycatch. A more thorough assessment of bycatch, regardless of using weight or numbers of fish and invertebrates, would require a study conducted over several years and with variable resource conditions.”




To fully solve these problems between the industry and the public and find out more about why so many of our Bay species are in decline, we need to get another, more comprehensive bycatch study done ASAP. VIMS should also analyze the industry’s net set locations over time to gauge whether they actually do hit bottom or not. If the industry isn’t willing to give up that data, why should we start believing anything they say? Do we let politicians or any other industry do that? No, of course not! Just because you have a 150-year history doesn’t mean you run Virginia. There are thousands of other Virginians who rely on the Bay just like you do, and who should matter just as much to those in charge.


To the menhaden industry: if what your harvesting is only menhaden and your boats/nets aren’t touching the bottom or causing harm as you say, prove to the public that that’s the case. It should be easy right? Let VIMS or VMRC have a record of all of the bycatch from each of your sets, along with being transparent about where the sets are actually made in the first place. Be transparent with the public about what you’re doing and people would start to believe what you say for once. After what happened last year with all those red drum washing up after your massive net spill (and VMRC letting you submit your own fish counts), it’s getting increasingly hard to believe that what your PR team says is anywhere close to the reality. Be honest.




VIMS bycatch study reference: Kirkley, J. (1995) Bycatch in the Virginia Menhaden Fishery: A Reexamination of the Data. Marine Resource Advisory No. 53-a; VSG-95-07. Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary.


CommentID: 219539