Virginia state legislation to protect commercial fishermen and their boats from harassment from sport fishermen at sea was approved 8-0 by the state House Courts of Justice - Criminal Subcommittee on Feb. 2 and will move on to the next level of the House in Richmond, Va.

Virginia House Bill 928, sponsored by Delegate Hillary Pugh Kent, increases penalties for harassing watermen to a Class I misdemeanor which is confinement in jail for not more than twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both. Anyone convicted will forfeit Virginia’s hunting and fishing licenses for one year on first offense, and three years on a second offense.

The bill was prompted by a dangerous engagement between a jet skier and an Ocean Harvesters menhaden fishing crew that occurred on September 23, 2023, which was documented in a video by a menhaden spotter pilot.

The incident occurred approximately 1.5 miles east of Buckroe Beach off Hampton, Va., in Chesapeake Bay. As an Ocean Harvesters’ crew was making a set, the rider of the jet ski ran his boat between the two purse boats and was able to get inside the set and out before the set was completed. This was the third harassment issue by a recreational boater occurring last year, said Monty Deihl, CEO of Ocean Harvesters, a U.S. fishing company that has a long-term contract to harvest and deliver menhaden for Omega Protein. 

HB 928 is supported by the Virginia Waterman’s Association (VWA). VWA president J.C. Hudgins says his organization has been lobbying in support of the bill.

“This is not just an Omega (menhaden) problem,” says Hudgins. “Gillnetters and crab potters are often harassed by sport fishermen and by waterfront land owners who think crabbers are fishing pots too close to their docks.”

“Most of the problems seem to happen in the warmer weather months during the rockfish and Spanish mackerel gill net and crab pot seasons,” he says. “We do not seem to run into many problems with the public in the winter when oystering.”

“We face all kinds of different levels of harassment and threats from people complaining because our boat engines going out the creek to work wake them up at 5 a.m. in the morning – to people screaming and hollowing at us because they think we are catching all of their fish and crabs. Usually, they go away but we do not know how far it might escalate and in what manner, and that concerns us.”

“We feel this bill has the teeth to make someone think twice about doing something dangerous or outrageous to our watermen and their boats,” says Hudgins.

The incident on September 23 resulted in the arrest of the person driving the jet ski. He was found guilty and required to pay a $500 fine. The jet skier rode inside the net, sprayed the crew with his wake and yelled obscenities at them, according to an account by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition.

Ocean Harvesters in Reedville, Va, is the only large menhaden reduction fishery on Chesapeake Bay and the largest on the Atlantic coast.

The company has been been catching fire from environmental and sport fishing groups that want the company to stop catching menhaden and to move out of Chesapeake Bay.

Last year menhaden were on the House agenda too, as Delegate Tim Anderson of Virginia Beach proposed Bill 1383 to shut down Virginia’s menhaden reduction fishery in all of the state’s territorial ocean and bay waters. The bill did not get out of committee and was defeated.

There is currently a similar House bill to Bill 928 circulating to protect watermen by Delegate Robert S. Bloxom Jr. also to increase penalties for intentionally interfering with commercial fishing operations.

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Larry Chowning is a writer for the Southside Sentinel in Urbanna, Va., a regular contributor to National Fisherman, and the author of numerous books.

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