Menhaden management moves up the food chain
ASMFC votes to give public its say on menhaden
ALEXANDRIA, VA – Tangible management of menhaden in the Atlantic moved another step closer to reality this week when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted to send a series of management options for this critical forage species out to public hearings.
Menhaden management has long been a sore point among conservationists as intense commercial harvest of the species in the Chesapeake Bay has added to factors believed to be negatively impacting striped bass and other gamefish all along the East Coast. The primary industrial harvester of Atlantic menhaden, Omega Protein, has never had its harvest effectively restricted and stands as one of the very few commercial fishing operations in the country to successfully avoid management measures that might impact its bottom line.
There is also a completely unregulated bait fishery that targets menhaden throughout its East Coast range. Comprised of boats of all sizes, from large mid-water trawlers to small skiffs, it supplies bait to both the commercial and recreational fishery. The quantity of menhaden harvested by that industry has never been comprehensively assessed, but it is undoubtedly significant. In addition, the fishery is believed to be expanding as northeastern lobstermen seek a substitute for the more strictly regulated, Atlantic herring, which is decreasing in abundance.
The most current menhaden stock assessment showed the stock was undergoing overfishing and abundance estimates were at the lowest level ever recorded. Current science indicates that the menhaden spawning stock biomass is at about 9 percent of a stock that is not subjected to any fishing pressure. With the vote this week, the ASMFC has put into play management options that could increase the spawning stock biomass to15 percent or more.
“This is the grinding process of management,” said Richen Brame, CCA Atlantic States Fisheries Director. “The science is finally catching up with the problems anglers and conservationists have been talking about for a long time, and now the process can move forward. The fact that these options are going out for public hearing is significant, but it is a slow grind to get where we want to be with this stock. You can bet the harvesters think this is a significant development.”
Whatever regulations are ultimately adopted will be interim measures that will likely be in place for three to five years until ecological reference points, generated from a Multi-Species Virtual Population Analysis can be produced, which will require stock assessment updates on bluefish, striped bass, weakfish and menhaden stock. When that analysis is conducted, it is very possible managers will have a much better idea of the population of menhaden needed to fully serve as the critical forage base for those popular sport fish.
“Almost everyone who has spent time fishing in the Chesapeake has seen how the industrial boats, aided by spotter planes, can wipe out whole schools of menhaden, removing them completely from the food chain,” said Frank Kearney, chairman of CCA Virginia’s Government Affairs Committee. “For a long time, anglers have felt powerless to impact the menhaden management process against a very well-connected and financially powerful company. Now that these measures are going out for public hearing, it feels like we have a chance to inject some sanity into this fishery and begin to manage it for the greater good, not just for the good of one company.”