In the Chesapeake Bay, osprey are the region’s top avian predator, but recent research found many of their young aren’t surviving.

In light of the research, the Richmond Audubon Society asked state fisheries regulators at the end of July to temporarily suspend the use of large fishing nets in the Chesapeake Bay for 30 days starting in August to allow osprey more menhaden to feed on ahead of their migratory travel south for the winter.

The change would primarily affect the operations of Virginia’s long-established Omega Protein, which operates out of Reedville and uses purse seine nets to catch menhaden in the Bay before reducing the fish to meal and oil, as well as the menhaden bait fishery.

“In Gloucester, Mathews, and York counties, osprey are starving due to concentrated purse seine fishing in the Chesapeake Bay,” the Audubon Society wrote in its request. “This has resulted in summer nest failures not seen since the DDT crisis fifty (50) years ago. Simply put, this evidence shows that currently there are not enough menhaden being left in the bay to maintain a balanced ecosystem.”

The group’s ask is the latest twist in an ongoing debate over whether Omega should be allowed to fish in the Chesapeake Bay. In a statement, the company has called the newest request “both excessive and unwarranted” and has questioned the connection between menhaden fishing and osprey declines. 

“I know that compromise is possible,” said Julie Kacmarcik, conservation chair of the Richmond Audubon Society. “This will allow more time for future conversation.” 

The group is basing its request on recent research by Professor Bryan Watts, director at the Center for Conservation Biology at William and Mary, that found baby osprey in Mobjack Bay, a southern portion of the Chesapeake Bay near Virginia’s Gloucester County, are dying because their parents are feeding them fewer nutrient-rich menhaden. Osprey can feed on croaker, striped bass and other fish, but Watts said “they’re not of the same quality” as menhaden.

“Menhaden is the most energy-dense fish we have in the lower Bay,” Watts said.

Researchers with the Center for Conservation Biology have monitored osprey nests in Mobjack Bay and observed what fish parents deliver to chicks for decades, Watts said. Between 1985 and 2021, records show the rate of menhaden captures by male osprey decreased from 2.4 fish per 10 hours to only 0.4 fish per 10 hours, a decline of more than 80%.

Compounding the issue is the pecking order osprey establish in nests: “Alpha” chicks get fed before “beta” or “gamma” chicks, Watts said. His work concludes that second and third chicks are dying off because of a lack of menhaden to go around.

“Things are clearly out of balance within the lower [Chesapeake] Bay,” Watts said, adding that he believes a one-month pause isn’t enough to reverse the trend.  “I don’t believe that this issue is constrained to Mobjack Bay.”

Omega says request is "excessive and unwarranted"

Kacmarcik said the Audubon Society’s concern primarily centers on the Chesapeake Bay. The group is particularly concerned about the health of the osprey population because the birds will begin traveling in October thousands of miles south for the winter in October, a journey they are unable to survive if they aren’t healthy enough. Some stop in Florida, Kacmarcik said, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has tracked others that fly 5,000 miles to South America using wind currents to elevate and soar. They return home in March.

Asked about Watts’ research, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, another branch of William and Mary that studies fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay, noted that menhaden are impacted by “a wide range” of environmental processes and human stressors. 

Following legislation passed during the last General Assembly session, “VIMS is in the process of determining for the Commonwealth what additional data would need to be collected to better understand the menhaden stock in Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay,”  Derek Aday, dean and director of VIMS, said in a statement.

But Omega Protein disputes the conclusion that menhaden fishing is depleting stock to the detriment of ospreys. 

Harvest caps set by fisheries regulators decreased catch quotas in the Bay by 65% from 1986 to 2021, the company noted. Furthermore, it said, catch records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that there have been no menhaden nets set in Mobjack Bay in over a decade.

“A one-month moratorium on purse seine fishing in the Chesapeake Bay is both excessive and unwarranted,” the company said in a statement. “There is no evidence that a halt of menhaden fishing in the Bay would improve osprey nutrition at all, and the extraordinary impacts to the companies and fishermen in the industry would likely result in millions of millions of lost economic activity to the menhaden reduction and bait fisheries.”

The Audubon Society is requesting the suspension under a provision of state law that allows the adoption of emergency regulations if the Virginia Marine Resources Commission considers them “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety, and welfare, or the protection of the seafood industry, natural resources or marine organisms.” 

VMRC has previously enacted emergency restrictions on fisheries in response to concerns about population. In 2019, it passed emergency regulations for the striped bass population following a stock assessment that found reductions in the species. Since then, following conservation measures instituted by regulators, striped bass have been found to no longer be overfished, though juvenile numbers are still lagging.

Although the Audubon Society urged VMRC to take immediate action on the menhaden proposal, the commission has opened a public comment period on the issue that runs from Aug. 28 through Sept. 18.

“I do not want that,” said Kacmarcik. “It needed to happen [Tuesday].”

The Audubon Society’s request also comes as recreational anglers have filed two more petitions attempting to block Omega from operating in the Bay. One asks for regulators to set a limit on how deep nets can be dropped to avoid scraping the bottom of the Chesapeake. Another asks the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to recognize wastewater discharge from menhaden fishing vessels as a pollutant.

A date for the August VMRC meeting hasn’t yet been set.