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The menhaden industry in Virginia has agreed to limit some of its fishing operations in the Chesapeake Bay.

Under a new memorandum of understanding with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Reedville-based Omega Protein says it will curb its harvest on summer weekends and holidays. The company will also avoid fishing within a mile of shoreline in some parts of the bay in Virginia's jurisdiction. 

The agreement is not enforceable by the state.

It's the latest in a decades-long, politically fraught fight over the fishery that’s unique to Virginia, which is the only place on the East Coast that still allows harvesting menhaden in state waters.

Sportfishers and environmental groups have been pushing for a total ban of the harvest within the bay, citing impacts to the local food chain and several recent fish spills.

For many years, lawmakers in Richmond controlled menhaden regulations directly, the only fishery not under the jurisdiction of the VMRC. That changed in 2020.

Late last year, the VMRC was set to weigh some new regulations. After hours of heated public comments, commissioners did not vote on the proposals

Instead, they proposed reaching a voluntary agreement with the menhaden industry, which is what Omega Protein signed last week.

The company catches menhaden and processes them into oil or fishmeal at a facility in Reedville.

They use a method called purse seine fishing, in which a large wall of netting is deployed around an entire area or school of fish. A skiff encircles the fish with the net, and a lead line is then pulled in to close the bottom of the net and prevent fish from swimming out.

Spills sometimes happen when the nets tear or malfunction, releasing dead fish that sometimes end up on local beaches.

Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a statement Tuesday that the nonprofit appreciates the state's new step, but believes more needs to be done.

"Omega Protein has time and again fought against a commonsense approach to the management of this fishery," Moore wrote.

Company "net spills of menhaden are an alarming waste of a precious food source for striped bass, dolphins, osprey, and other wildlife. Science on the menhaden population in the Bay is still lacking, and more data is needed to better manage Virginia’s menhaden fishery."

Legislation proposed by former Virginia Beach Del. Tim Anderson to prohibit menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake failed at this year's General Assembly.