The Virginia General Assembly has passed HB 928, a bill designed to protect commercial fishermen and their boats from harassment at sea.

The measure passed 38-1 by the state Senate and 99-0 in the lower House, and was signed on by legislative leaders in early March. Gov. Glenn Youngkin is expected to sign it into law, with a deadline for his action by April 8.

The bill, sponsored by Delegate Hillary Pugh Kent of the state’s 67th District on Virginia’s Northern Neck, 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.

The Class 1 misdemeanor is for 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.

The bill also deems 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. The bill also requires any person convicted of a violation of this offense to complete a boating safety education class.

HB 928 was prompted by one dangerous engagement between a personal watercraft operator and an Ocean Harvesters menhaden fishing crew that occurred on Sept. 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. This was the third harassment issue by a recreational boater occurring last year, said Monty Diehl, CEO of Ocean Harvesters, a U. S. fishing company that has a long-term contract to harvest and deliver menhaden to Omega Protein.

A personal watercraft rider circles inside a purse seine set by the crew of the menhaden steamer Rappahannock Sept. 23, 2023, in what fishermen say was a third case of crews being harrassed last summer. Menhaden Fisheries Coalition video image.

The Sept. 23 confrontation resulted in the arrest of the watercraft operator, who was found guilty and required to pay a $500 fine. The boater 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 based in Reedville, Va, is the only large menhaden reduction fishery on Chesapeake Bay and the largest on the Atlantic coast. The company has long been catching fire from environmental and sportfishing groups that want the company to stop catching menhaden and to move out of the bay.

Last year menhaden were on the House agenda, when 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.

HB 928 was supported by the Virginia Waterman’s Association (VWA). “We feel this bill has the teeth to make someone think twice about doing something dangerous or outrageous to our watermen and their boats,” said J. C. Hudgins, president of the VWA.

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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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