Big Day for a Little Fish
Managers set a course for a critical forage species
By David Sikorski, Chairman
CCA Maryland Government Relations Committee
For more than a decade, fishermen, and leaders in the conservation community have been working hard to promote and initiate ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. Single species fisheries management is the norm, but any good fisherman knows that the fish we pursue are part of an ecosystem, so shouldn’t we be able to find a management structure that better matches such a system?
Stock abundance, catch estimates, natural mortality, and many other statistics and scientific studies go into our current fisheries management plans, but even the best plans, and the data that goes in to them, can be better.
The Atlantic menhaden, sometimes referred to as the “most important fish in the sea” is a keystone species in the Atlantic and one with its fair share of fisheries management conflicts surrounding it. Menhaden are an important source of food, also known as forage, for nearly all of the most valuable predatory fish that we fishermen pursue. They are also very important to many small local fishing communities, and one large industrial fishing operation, Omega Protein.
Last May, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, (ASMFC), initiated Amendment 3 to the Atlantic menhaden fisheries management plan (FMP), which finally started the process towards managing menhaden based on their role in the ecosystem. In the late summer and early fall, two work groups comprised of ASMFC menhaden board members, and representatives of various stakeholder groups begin to flesh out what Amendment 3 might look like.
For classical single species management, managers and scientists are tasked with determining a sustainable level of yield from the fishery, otherwise known as maximum sustainable yield (MSY). In simple terms, scientists determine how much of the stock can be harvested and still leave enough biomass of fish in the water to sustain the necessary level of abundance. What they determine is the proper yield is then divided up, or allocated, between the states or amongst the various sectors. Determining the allocation of the allowed harvest is difficult in its own right, but something that managers are more than used to. Essentially the only factor considered is how many pounds or fish are taken out of the stock.
Forage fish management should be different. Obtaining MSY should be less important than maintaining abundance. Menhaden fulfill two primary roles in the ecosystem: 1) They are filter feeders that literally convert sunlight into protein by feeding on microscopic plants and 2) they are the primary prey species for most predatory fish, birds and mammals. The essential roles of menhaden – a primary filter feeder and prey species – are all based on the abundance of the menhaden stock.
Thus what is left in the water after harvest is critical, not just what is taken out of the water.
With ecosystem based management, a different scientific methodology is needed to better determine what should be harvested, and what should be left to sustain menhaden and the valuable role they play in the marine food web and ecosystem. At this point the managers, scientists, and stakeholders are split on what is the best path forward.
As you might imagine, while the concept of ecosystem management is relatively simple, implementation is complex. The important point is how to determine the ecosystem needs first and the allowable harvest would be what is left over. There is yet another scientific committee working on this (The Biological Ecological Reference Point (BERP) work group. They are looking into management models that would help them develop reference points (essentially guideposts) that would be the standard for management. But the models they are looking at would take several years to develop.
In the interim there is a relatively simple system called the Lenfest Approach which employs a common-sense method for how conservatively a forage fish species should be managed after taking into account such things as the life history of a species. It provides a basic rule of thumb for what percentage of the biomass of forage should be left in the water. For menhaden, that magic number is 75%, and is the option that the Coastal Conservation Association supports as the best management ready option for ecosystem based management.
By choosing this option, managers can ensure that enough menhaden are left in the water to reproduce, provide ample forage, and fulfill their role in the ecosystem. Yet the scientists have not recommended the Lenfest Approach as an interim management measure and there is the danger it won’t be included in the management options they are considering.
The ASMFC is holding its 75th Annual meeting in St. Augustine this week, and the Menhaden Management Board will be able to keep Amendment 3 on track only if they task staff with preparing a Public Information Document (PID) to be approved for release at the February 2016 meeting. This PID should include all potential options for future management and provide the public an opportunity to give input on all long term and interim management options. If the PID is not initiated, ecosystem based management will be delayed. If the Lenfest option is not included, a simple and common sense approach to ecosystem based management will be left behind.