Dead menhaden found floating off the coast of Cape Henry may be connected to a Friday incident near Smith Island, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
A vessel with the fish-processing company Omega Protein caught more menhaden than it could carry and rolled about 30,000 of the small, silvery fish back into the ocean off the eastern side of the Eastern Shore, said Rob O'Reilly, chief of fisheries management for the commission.
When an Omega Protein vessel pulls in more than it can haul, the vessel radios others to come collect the excess fish, company spokesman Ben Landry said. But all boats were already full Friday night, he said.
The fish were alive when they were put back into the water.
Some local fishermen reported seeing dead menhaden floating near Cape Henry over the weekend - some of them missing heads and tails.
O'Reilly said some fish die once they are released because of temperature change or the stress of being contained by a net. As for the missing body parts, he said, menhaden are a good forage fish for other species, and it's likely that sea creatures have been nibbling on them.
"Menhaden is the favorite food source for a lot of different fish out there," O'Reilly said.
Omega estimates a couple thousand of the fish died, Landry said.
The company reported the incident to the Marine Resources Commission and has been tracking the fish by airplane. The Texas-based company, which has a plant in Reedville, processes the fish into health supplements, fish oil and pet food.
Most of the dead fish already have sunk, and none have washed ashore, O'Reilly said. The incident does not pose a threat to humans or animals, he said.