Beaches closed following Omega Protein’s dead fish spill at Kiptopeke State Park on Eastern Shore

The swimming beach and southern beach of Kiptopeke State Park are closed following a fishing spill that sent an unknown number of dead menhaden and red drum onto the shore this week.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission received a report of the spill on Monday, when an Omega Protein reduction fishing vessel caught numerous large red drum while harvesting menhaden, according to a news release. The ship released some of the net’s contents containing the red drum and menhaden into the water.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is still investigating the cause of the spill with Omega Protein as of Wednesday afternoon. Omega Protein responded with additional resources and cleanup crews to remove the dead fish from the water and beaches, according to the news release. The total number of spilled fish is still unknown.

The park is working on cleaning up the fish and hope to reopen the beaches by Thursday, according to a park employee who answered the phone there Wednesday afternoon.

“Reduction fishing” refers to the process of harvesting small fish like menhaden to be ground up for use in fish meal and oil. The practice is contentious — with environmental groups and recreational fisherman claiming Omega Protein takes too many fish, leading to poor catches of fish that eat menhaden.

According to an Omega Protein news release, crew were bringing menhaden aboard while one mile offshore of Kiptopeke State Park when the captain noticed a group of red drum in the net. The crew opened the net to release the fish, following company policy, and many likely died during the incident.

The news release said this is uncommon, and the “most likely explanation” is that a school of red drum swam beneath a school of menhaden, making them unobservable to spotters. The release said Omega Protein immediately notified VMRC and are taking “full responsibility.”

Omega Protein fishermen were still on the Eastern Shore Wednesday morning to continue cleanup.

“We acknowledge the impact and inconvenience Monday’s incident may have on the Eastern Shore community and will continue to focus our collective efforts on the situation until it is remedied,” the company said.

This spill follows an Ocean Harvesters of Reedville spill earlier this month that sent thousands of menhaden near Silver Beach, 35 miles north of Kiptopeke.

There are about three spills by menhaden vessels each year, often caused by nets that get snagged.

Lauren Girgis,