Local Environmental Issues Articles

Menhaden are little guys among fish. But they’re huge to a fleet of trawler fishermen and to workers in a Chesapeake Bay town who help turn the catches into pet food and health supplements.

They’re also a big deal to other creatures that love to gobble them. Which makes menhaden mighty important to whale lovers and to fishermen who chase bluefish and striped bass.

Those competing demands have fueled decades of debate over whether menhaden are over-harvested, and the General Assembly has been right in the middle. The little fish are the only marine species that state lawmakers regulate.

That distinction will be put to the test once again this year. It’s among a slew of environmental issues that lawmakers will confront in the Assembly session that begins Wednesday.

They’ll also wade into the choppy waters of oyster ground leases, help decide how much more money the state will invest toward the Chesapeake Bay’s cleanup and consider challenging Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s control over how to implement federally mandated cuts in power-plant pollution.

In Hampton Roads, no environmental issue is likely to roil the legislature more, however, than menhaden. A dozen of the region’s 30 lawmakers have signed on to sponsor bills in the House of Delegates and Senate that would change the way the fishery is managed. The backers come from both parties.

It’s an unprecedented level of support for menhaden-related legislation, said Del. Barry Knight, a Virginia Beach Republican who has been pushing for nearly a decade to rein in menhaden fishing.

Knight is the chief patron of House Bills 150 and 151. The first would put regulation of menhaden into the hands of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which oversees all other coastal fisheries in the state. The second would forbid the menhaden fleet from using purse nets within a mile of the shores of the bay and its tributaries and within 3 miles of the Atlantic coastline of Virginia Beach.

Last month at a meeting with recreational anglers, Knight heard complaint after complaint about the menhaden fleet’s effect on stocks of striped bass and other fish in and around the bay. Roughly 85 percent of the quota for menhaden along the Atlantic Coast comes from Virginia – about 350 million pounds a year.

Virginia’s quota remains disproportionately high despite data showing that the number of young menhaden produced in the bay has remained near all-time lows for more than a decade, said Chris Moore, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s senior scientist in Virginia.

Omega Protein Corp., whose facility in Reedville “reduces” the menhaden catches into other products, is opposed to both of Knight’s bills, said Ben Landry, a company spokesman. He said Houston-based Omega is uneasy about the prospect of the nine-member board of the Marine Resources Commission deciding the fate of a company whose Virginia roots go back more than 100 years.

“We’d prefer there be 140 sets of eyes at the General Assembly who would look at it from all walks of life, ” Landry said. “It’s such a politically charged issue that we think it’s better that a larger body” control the fishery’s fate in Virginia.

Omega has contributed more than $400, 000 to political campaigns across the state since 1997, with about $242, 000 going to Republicans and $164, 000 to Democrats, according to records kept by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.

Landry said Knight’s other bill to push the fishery farther from shore “won’t do anything, really, to improve the ecosystem. It’s just something to say, ‘We don’t want to see you in our neighborhood.’ ”

He said Omega has informally agreed to back off from some coastal stretches at certain times of the year but that the mandate called for by Knight would add to the company’s costs and make it harder to achieve its catch goal. Menhaden are “near-shore species, ” he said. “They don’t swim in the open ocean.”

Knight, at a Chesapeake Bay Foundation-sponsored public forum on menhaden last week, said, “I don’t want to run Omega out of business.” He said his proposals are just common sense and would help correct an imbalance in fishery management that unfairly favors the company.

He gave his legislation a 50 percent chance of passing this year, adding that in the past he would have rated it a 15 percent shot at best: “We’ve got more noise on it this year than we’ve ever had.”

Here’s a rundown of some other environmental issues to watch for in the General Assembly this session:

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  • Sen.-elect Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia
  • Beach, has said he will introduce legislation calling for a study of leases of oyster grounds in the Lynnhaven River watershed. That comes after some homeowners along the river filed protests against new proposed oyster grounds, saying the leases would interfere with their recreational water uses and damage property values. DeSteph wants a moratorium on the issuing or transfer of oyster leases in the Lynnhaven while the study is under way. He has already filed another measure, SB102, that would add a 10th member to the board of the Marine Resources Commission, with that spot reserved for a Virginia Beach waterfront property owner. The commissio
  • n regulates the leases.
  • The Bay Foundation is hoping lawmakers approve or add to the roughly $62 million that McAuliffe proposed in his latest two-year budget to help farmers fence cattle away from streams or adopt other practices that reduce runoff, said Peggy Sanner, the group’s assistant director for Virginia. It’s also backing the $59 million he proposed for sewage plant upgrades, and will ask lawmakers to add $50 million a year to the budget to help cities and counties improve stormwater management. The governor zeroed out a special fund for that program in his budget proposal.
  • HB2, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, would require state regulators to get General Assembly approval of any plan to implement a new federal initiative intended to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Glen Besa, the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter director, said his group will fight the bill and urge McAuliffe, a Democrat, to veto it if the Republican-controlled legislature passes it. He said the bill’s intent is to undermine the federal rule, known as the Clean Power Plan.
  • HB351, offered by Del. Ron Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, would require the governor to enlist Virginia in a multistate compact that fosters trading of carbon pollution credits. The bill would set aside half of the $250 million a year that environmental groups have estimated it would generate in Virginia to coastal communities, with the money to be used to address rising seas. Separately, McAuliffe’s budget proposal to the Assembly includes nearly $2 million for Old Dominion University and the College of William & Mary to establish a joint center for helping communities deal with sea-level rise.

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