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.”

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