The menhaden mystery

ConservationEnvironmental IssuesFishingLifestyle and LeisureSeafood and Fishing IndustryAquacultureNatural Resource Industry

At a historic meeting in Baltimore recently, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the fisheries management body representing 15 states along the Eastern Seaboard, resolved to cap the harvest of menhaden at 20 percent less than the average landings of 2009-2011. On hand at the meeting were menhaden industry lobbyists and executives as well as deck hands, recreational anglers, state marine resource officials and conservationists — a dizzying array of stakeholders, each presenting arguments bolstered by evidence designed to make their opponents seem unreasonable.

Someone walking in off of the street would have been forgiven for assuming that the presenters were talking about two different species of fish.

On one side of the room, conservationists and recreational angling groups like Stripers Forever, Menhaden Defenders, the Herring Alliance, the Coastal Conservation Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation demanded action in defense of menhaden. Many of these groups' members held up yellow signs indicating their support for harvest cuts as deep as 50 percent. Although the room was full of people from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, others had traveled from Maine, Connecticut, South Carolina and Florida.

Arguing for drastic harvest cuts, the conservationists pointed to the latest ASMFC stock assessment, which they said indicated that the menhaden stock is at an all-time low of just 8 percent of an unfished stock. They cited studies that examined the stomach contents of striped bass and ospreys, which traditionally feast on menhaden. These studies suggest that the study subjects were either starving or forced to eat other marine life, like blue crabs, to survive. Sadly, nearly half of Chesapeake Bay stripers appear to have lesions, which some scientists believe are caused by malnutrition.

Some argued for cuts on purely philosophical grounds. Respected Rutgers University professor H. Bruce Franklin, author of "The Most Important Fish in the Sea," believes that Omega Protein, the largest harvester of menhaden in North America with an important processing plant in Reedville, Va., should not be allowed to operate at all.

"There is simply no reason this company should exist," he said, arguing that taking menhaden from the ocean to create industrial products is a waste of natural resources. (Mr. Franklin has purist tendencies that extend beyond fish: He also believes that cigarette manufacturers should be unilaterally shut down because their products are a threat to public health.)

Commercial fishermen, whose livelihoods would be affected by the ASMFC's decision, did not sit idly by to let their jobs be regulated into oblivion. They stood respectfully in yellow T-shirts and eventually marched silently around the room as the ASMFC deliberated. Some had traveled nearly seven hours by bus to the meeting to make their case to commissioners.

Jim Kellum, a widely respected commercial fisherman and owner of Ocean Baits in Virginia, said, "Last year our industry had one of the best landings in history. How in the world can the ASMFC believe the population of menhaden is crashing when we are landing more fish with fewer boats and less effort than ever before?"

Mr. Kellum went on to argue passionately that sound science — and not emotional appeals — should rule the day. The commercial industry, he said, had agreed to give up 10 percent of its landings as a good faith effort, but to ask for more than that was to ask too much.

So what does the science say? Ironically, the ASMFC's own scientists believe that their latest stock assessment is not a reliable means of predicting the stock's biomass. Menhaden are apparently producing enough eggs to replenish the stocks, but oddly, those eggs aren't hatching in the numbers regulators would like to see — and no one knows why. Some have argued that pollution plays a significant role in the depletion of this important baitfish, while others claim that significant fluctuations in the menhaden population are normal. In fact, the ASMFC stock assessment says that "population fluctuations are almost entirely driven by non-fishery sources."

Regrettably, many are willing to simply blame commercial anglers in general, but they do so without the benefit of hard science, much less a smoking gun.

Ultimately, although all sides support a large, healthy, sustainable menhaden population, stakeholders are diametrically opposed on the means used to achieve that. The ASMFC's decision is really just an educated guess as to what's best for the vital menhaden fishery.

Confused about the ASMFC's decision and what it will mean for fish and fishermen? You're in good company. Let's hope this action by the ASMFC helps both sides — and the fish.

Beau Beasley is an award-winning author and expert fisherman. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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