Northam’s Biggest Conservation Opportunity


This past spring, Maryland’s congressional delegation — supported by most of Virginia’s delegation — announced the effort to designate large swaths of the Chesapeake Bay as a National Heritage Area. Our bay’s history, cultural diversity and magnificent ecosystem — the largest of its kind in the world — deserves this, and our congressional leaders are to be applauded. But our governor can step up and do even more: Join every other state on the East Coast and ban the industrial harvesting of the menhaden feeder fish in Virginia’s waters.

Our state is the only one on the East Coast that allows a Canadian company to ply our waters and suck up more than half a billion fish every year, rendering them into fish meal and oil for use as animal feed in Canada. These forage fish, Atlantic menhaden, are the essential part of the marine ecosystem called the “most important fish in the sea” because it is the base feedstock for bluefish, striped bass (a $7 billion-plus industry along the East Coast), and most of the other fish in the bay and waters off of our beaches.

The logic behind this is really simple: Less menhaden feedstock for bass and blues means less bass and blues. Some marine scientists estimate that by allowing Cooke Inc. of New Brunswick, Canada, to come south and take our feeder fish, it reduces other bay fish by as much as 30%. Cooke uses spotter planes to find swirling pools of menhaden and then directs 200-foot-long “mother ships” to the spot to vacuum up whole schools.

Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam, along with Virginia Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Matt Strickler, showed responsible leadership by joining other states to hold Cooke Inc. to account after it intentionally exceeded the Chesapeake Bay fishing cap set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages the fisheries for the U.S. Commerce Department, and transferring oversight of Cooke within the commonwealth to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), the body that also manages every other fishery in the commonwealth.

Now the governor and the VMRC need to really make history by taking the next step and ending the practice of reduction fishing in Virginia’s waters altogether. Again, every other East Coast state has effectively banned industrial harvesting of menhaden. Our congressional delegation has joined with neighboring Maryland to designate the bay as a National Heritage Site. The depletion of all fish in the world’s greatest estuary, starting with the menhaden, also depletes the coffers of state and local governments. As our state emerges from 18 months of this terrible pandemic, you’d think that we would want to really help our tourism, restaurants, marinas, fishing guides and tens of thousands of others who rely on a thriving Chesapeake Bay. To deal with the recent dearth of bass in the bay, Maryland imposed a moratorium on recreational bass fishing this summer, signaling trouble ahead for all who ply its waters.

Gov. Northam, you should do this because it will help create and maintain thousands of jobs across the state. It also will increase revenue for the state’s treasury. You should do this because it holds the potential to dramatically improve the environment in our beloved bay. You should do it for the more than 1 million men, women and children who buy fishing licenses in the commonwealth each year. However, at the end of the day, and the end of your term, you also should do it to leave a legacy of such important environmental impact that generations after us will benefit from your graciousness.