Should regulators limit the catch of Atlantic menhaden?
Menhaden is not overfished
Atlantic menhaden, the largest fishery on the East Coast, is vital to many hard-working Virginia communities. It supplies the reduction industry in Reedville, and bait for fishing businesses statewide. With the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission setting new catch limits this December, the potential impact on Virginia watermen, especially in the Northern Neck, is huge.
Environmental organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Pew Environment Group are pushing for sharp catch reductions. Pew recently stated, “the best scientific information available shows that menhaden are in severe decline and that catch should immediately be reduced by half.” The truth is more nuanced.
No scientific evidence suggests an immediate 50 percent reduction in harvest. The current management process was triggered by a 2010 ASMFC stock assessment that found menhaden experienced slight overfishing (0.4 percent over the limit) in 2008. This was only the second time in the period from 1993-2008 when overfishing occurred.
“Overfishing” is a legal determination meaning that fishing exceeded levels set by regulators. It is not the same as “overfished,” which means there are not enough mature females or egg production to replenish the stock. Both the 2010 and the 2012 ASMFC assessments found the population was producing more than enough eggs to sustain itself, stating, “overfishing is occurring, but the stock is not overfished.”
Unfortunately, the 2012 assessment doesn’t provide much else about the stock. It concluded that there were several flaws that “cast considerable doubt on the accuracy of the estimates from this update stock assessment.” The ASMFC’s Menhaden Technical Committee found these flaws made the assessment unfit for management advice.
Given the lack of reliable information, a cap based on three-year average landings level could be the best option. Under that approach, harvest cuts would be about 7 percent lower than in 2011. This will allow the menhaden stock to continue its growth while fishermen and fishing communities continue to survive. In contrast, proposed cuts in the range of 20 percent to 50 percent will result in significant job loss.
Omega Protein directly provides 250 jobs, and indirectly provides hundreds more. Its annual economic contribution is $88 million in a region where dependable, good-paying jobs are scarce. It is the largest private and also the largest minority employer in Northumberland County. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 has asked fellow union members to support Omega fishermen.
Conservation of our marine resources is essential. But good conservation is based on sound science. Federal law clearly states that while preventing overfishing and rebuilding stocks, regulators are to “take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities.” Taking drastic action on inconclusive evidence helps neither the fish nor the fishermen.
More menhaden, more bait, more jobs
Moore is Hampton Roads senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The next few months will be crucial for Atlantic menhaden, a small, silvery fish vital to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast. Also called porgy, fatback and bunker, menhaden have been dubbed the most important fish in the sea because of their critical ecological and economic roles.
Menhaden are a major food source for striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, summer flounder, dolphin, whales, ospreys, loons and pelicans. They are also the target of Virginia’s largest fishery, based in Reedville, that catches and converts menhaden to fish meal and oil. Menhaden are also harvested for bait to catch blue crabs and a variety of sport fish.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a partnership of coastal states from Maine to Florida, is considered the unbiased arbiter of menhaden science along the Atlantic Coast. In 2010 and 2012, the commission published stock assessments of the menhaden population that raise very troubling issues and indicate the need for greater conservation of menhaden.
Both ASMFC’s 2010 and 2012 assessments clearly showed the menhaden population at or near all-time lows, or about 8 percent of what an unfished population would be. Also, the number of young fish entering the population each year has remained remarkably low for nearly 20 years, a serious sign the population is not healthy.
The menhaden fishing industry has questioned ASMFC’s science and consistently denied that menhaden are in trouble. ASMFC’s peer-reviewed data, however, paint a much different picture, showing the population is experiencing overfishing and has been for at least 32 of the past 54 years.
The industry also contends menhaden numbers today are the same as 50 years ago, implying all is well, but neglecting that 50 years ago the population had plummeted and was declared overfished.
Finally, the industry uses the threat of massive job losses to argue against harvest reductions. However, there once were numerous menhaden industrial plants up and down the East Coast, employing thousands of workers. Today, with menhaden numbers the lowest on record, those fisheries have severely contracted. The Reedville plant is the only one left.
Is maintaining the status quo really the best course for the industry? In the long term, conserving menhaden will restore jobs, not destroy them.
Clearly, more aggressive steps must be taken to protect the menhaden population to enhance both the coastal ecosystem and menhaden-related jobs. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation calls upon the ASMFC to produce a robust menhaden conservation plan when it meets on Dec. 14, and for the Virginia General Assembly to approve its implementation during the 2013 legislative session.