A panel of fisheries regulators took a first step Monday that could lead to a freeze on catching menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.

The menhaden panel of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission unanimously found Virginia was out of compliance with the sharply lower cap on the Bay catch the commission set two years ago.

The finding next goes to the the full commission’s policy board later this week.

The issue was the catch that Reedville-based Omega Protein harvested, several panel members said. Omega spokesman Ben Landry said the company went over the Bay cap when dangerous weather out at sea made fishing outside the Bay dangerous in August and September while large schools of menhaden were just inside the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. But even with this year’s excess, the company’s average over the past decade has been below the 51,000-metric-ton Bay cap the commission set in 2017, he said.

Ritchie White, one of New Hampshire’s representatives on the commission, said Monday’s vote was a matter of maintaining the commission’s authority, even if — as many suspect — U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who gets the final say, would not go along with sanctioning Virginia.

Ross rejected the commission’s last noncompliance finding, involving New Jersey’s balking at incorporating its rules for the summer flounder fishery. A Department of Commerce finding of noncompliance opens the way for federal regulators to impose a moratorium on a fishery.

Commissioner Steve Bowman, of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, told the menhaden panel that he hoped its finding would convince the General Assembly to adopt the Atlantic States commission’s Bay cap. Other members of the menhaden panel said they hoped the legislature would also turn over its unique regulatory power over menhaden to the Virginia commission.

One of New York’s representatives to the commission, Cornell University Marine Program director Emerson Hasbrouck, said he supported the noncompliance finding even though he had opposed the original cut in the Bay quota.

“We need to do what we have to do here,” he said.

The commission has not found that menhaden are overfished, although it has said that’s the case for striped bass, which feed on menhaden. Recreational fishermen argue that Omega is catching so many menhaden in the Bay that it is starving striped bass in an important nursery.

“For its own profit Omega Protein has now tarnished Virginia’s reputation as a responsible steward of its fisheries," said Chris Moore, Chesapeake Bay Foundation regional ecosystem scientist.

“Allowing this foreign company to further threaten Chesapeake Bay resources and the ASMFC’s longstanding cooperative process to manage fisheries between coastal states would be a travesty,” he said. Omega is owned by a Canadian company.

Omega operates a fleet of eight fishing boats to supply its fish oil and fishmeal plant in Reedville. It has complained that the Bay cap is not based on sound science, and argued that stocks of menhaden are rising.

“In the last decade, we have made a concerted effort to fish outside the Bay whenever weather conditions and the location of the fish have made that possible,” said Monty Deihl, who has managed the Atlantic menhaden marine ingredients fishing fleet since 2010.

Dave Ress, 757-247-4535, dress@dailypress.com

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