Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into law "The Right to Fish" bill, (Virginia House Bill 928) to protect commercial watermen from interference, said state Delegate Hillary Pugh Kent.

Kent, who represents Virginia's Northern Neck and Caroline County in the state legislature, was primary sponsor of the measure, inspired by reports of Virginia commercial fishermen being harassed while working on the water.

 Kent says the new law “recognizes the importance of our state's seafood industry by creating protections for commercial watermen and deterring unlawful interference.”

“This new law will provide restitution against those who purposefully inhibit fishing and destroy the property of commercial watermen,” she said. “It will reinforce the continued viability of our fishing and seafood industries, which are necessary to the economic and cultural fabric of the Northern Neck and all of the Commonwealth."

The bill passed 38 to 1 in the state Senate and unanimously in the state House. The new law increases penalties for harassing watermen to a Class I misdemeanor, which is punishable by confinement in jail for not more than twelve months, and or a fine of not more than $2,500.

Any person who knowingly and intentionally interferes with or impedes the operation of  commercial fishing activity of a commercial fishing vessel within the territorial waters of the Commonwealth will be charged with the Class 1 misdemeanor.

The legislation declares a person to be ineligible for any hunting or fishing license for a period of one year upon a first conviction of this offense, and for a period of three years upon a second or subsequent conviction. Anyone convicted of the offense will also be requird to complete a boating safety education class.

HB 928 was prompted by a dangerous engagement between a personal watercraft operator and an Ocean Harvesters menhaden fishing crew that occurred on September 23, 2023, and 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 watercraft rider ran his boat between the two purse boats and was able to get inside the set and out before the set was completed.       

That confrontation resulted in the arrest of the man driving the watercraft. He was found guilty and required to pay a $500 fine. The rider sped inside the net, sprayed the crew with his wake and yelled obscenities at them, according to an account by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, a commercial industry group.

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 catching fire from environmental and sportfishing groups that want the company to stop catching menhaden, and move its operations out of the bay.

According to the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, the bill was supported by the Virginia Manufacturer's Association, Virginia Watermen's Association, and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400.

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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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