Bay Journal

Assertions about menhaden population were a bit fishy

  • By Ben Landry on April 28, 2017
Menhaden are caught in a purse seine net in this 1990 photo. (Dave Harp)

In his recent Bay Journal op-ed, Don’t let menhaden become a case of could have, should have, would have, March 2017, Bill Bartlett claims that menhaden are both scarce and unregulated in the Chesapeake Bay.

Neither assertion is true according to the latest and best science on menhaden. This data instead indicate that this species is being managed sustainably and responsibly.

The late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously stated that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Because a column appears in the op-ed section does not excuse it from journalistic obligations of fact-checking and accuracy. Let’s look at the facts along with supporting citations.

Bartlett believes “the [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission] lets people have their say about menhaden and then does nothing or very little” to properly manage the species. This could not be further from the case – the ASMFC bases its very precautionary management decisions on the most up-to-date scientific standards. The evidence points to that management being quite conservative: According to the most recent stock assessment report on Atlantic menhaden, menhaden are not overfished, nor are they experiencing overfishing. The commission deemed the species to be so healthy that the quota was actually increased 10 percent. Analysis from ASMFC experts indicated that the quota could have been increased by as much as 40 percent without the risk of overfishing the stock.

Even that increase puts menhaden fishing mortality—a measure of the amount of fish the fishery harvests—at near historic lows.

Bartlett invokes a past where he could count upward of 40 boats on the Potomac River catching fish during the summer. But during this period, menhaden were being harvested at rates several times higher than today. Fishing mortality rates peaked in the late 1950s, and current mortality rates are much lower than previous decades – just one indication of a current sustainable harvest.

In an attempt to support the importance of menhaden, Bartlett claims menhaden would do a better job of removing plankton from the Chesapeake Bay than oysters if given the chance. Once again, this does not reflect the most recent scientific data regarding menhaden’s role in water quality. A 2010 study from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that menhaden do not contribute much to filtering efforts in the Bay, and that oysters eliminate plankton at rates “an order of magnitude” larger than menhaden.

Similarly, Bartlett’s pattern of misinformation continues as he claims that menhaden are the “most important fish in the sea.” That statement runs counter with recent findings from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. As reported by the Bay Journal in 2015, a study on the diets of five major predator species found that menhaden was not as important a food source as had been anticipated, and that it did not even make the “top three or four” most important. Instead, anchovies turned out to be the most crucial fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

While focused on the importance of menhaden in the seas, Bartlett does not mention the instrumental role they play in human nutrition and seafood consumption. Menhaden provide substantial health benefits through the supply of long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are consumed both directly as supplements and indirectly through increasingly popular farmed seafood.

While Bartlett uses a highly selective narrative for his arguments, one cannot ignore the science: Menhaden populations are healthy, and fishing levels have reached the lowest levels in decades. Science, not baseless claims, must continue to dictate the balance between environmental regulations and harvest levels in order to create the most optimal outcome.

The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

About Ben Landry
Ben Landry is director of public affairs for Omega Protein.
Read more articles by Ben Landry


By submitting a comment, you are consenting to these Rules of Conduct. Thank you for your civil participation. Please note: reader comments do not represent the position of Chesapeake Media Service.

Patrick on April 29, 2017:

While I appreciate the fact that the menhaden population is now at least stable, if not slightly increasing, it is nowhere near historical levels. The major beneficiary of the menhaden fishery is one company, Omega Protein, so there is obviously a conflict of interest with this writer. I would like to see the catch capped at current levels for 5 years, and see how much the population increases, how much predator fish stocks increase, and see how much commercial landings of sport fish increase. This would provide some barometer of the importance of this fish for other ecosystem and economic services beyond Omega Protein. If all three increase as a result, then I think the take by Omega Protein could be increased by one tenth of the effective impact of the growth rate. So if all three increased 10%, the take could be increased 1%.

Joseph Corcoran on May 02, 2017:

OK .NOW let's hear the truth . Omega Protein has always been the problem .

Kate on May 02, 2017:

Hear, hear, Patrick.

Ben Florence on May 03, 2017:

As a first-hand observer of the coastal Atlantic menhaden fishery for over 60 years and as a professional fisheries biologist for over 35 years on the Chesapeake Bay: I take exception with Ben Landry of Omega Proteins' assertion that the menhaden population is in very good condition based on current predictive fisheries population models. Due to the variability,inconsistent nature and inaccuracy of data collection: Population and harvest models are interesting but not necessarily accurate in their predictive power. I agree with Omega Protein that the menhaden harvest is at historic lows. If the fish do not exist they cannot be harvested. And at these reduced population levels they will not show up as an important food source for predator species in the Chesapeake Bay as documented in the study by UM Center for Environmental Science. If young menhaden do not exist, they cannot be eaten. I suggest that those interested in this issue read the peer reviewed presentation by Price and Boone of the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation Inc. released and presented at the Northeast Fish & Wildlife Conference (2016) titled Striped Bass & Atlantic Menhaden Management Disrupts Ecosystem. Part of the summary statement about Atlantic Menhaden states: "Ecological overfishing (unsustainable harvest levels that disrupt the natural balance between predators and prey) of menhaden has depleted the adult striped bass food supply in the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coastal waters and lowered the carrying capacity of seabirds and fishes.) In the hay day of the Menhaden fishery, several companies harvested menhaden from Canada to the Carolinas. These companies have been long gone with the depletion of coastal menhaden stocks. This leads to the observation that if a resource is limited there will be no new companies entering a risky fishery. By maintaining low stock levels the existing harvesting company maintains a near monopoly for capture, processing and sale of this resource. A strong economic benefit for low menhaden population levels.

Robert Harden on May 04, 2017:

Spoken like someone who makes bucks from raping the species. Ohhhhh, he Works fir Omega Protein, the company making huge profits from the decimation of bunker while using their employees jobs as an excuse to destroy the resource. Yeah, we get it man. We get it...

Chris Shater on May 21, 2017:

It is inconceivable that the menhaden depletion industry is allowed to continue to this day. Could Mr. Landry let us know what percentage of the fish meal processed from menhaden is sold to the fish farming industry? That we allow our local fish stocks to be so abused, so that we in turn have affordable farm raised salmon in our markets, is the price worth it? Omega is always referencing the health of the menhaden stocks. Studies whose numbers are pulled from the full Atlantic coast, many places where Omega does not venture. The majority of Omega's catches come from or very close to the bay. The reason menhaden are no longer a major food source for predator species in the bay, is there are no menhaden for the predator species to eat. The reason they do not provide an equal filtration levels as the oyster, is there very few mature menhaden in the bay to have a substantial affect. Omega seems to have read the book, how to lie with statistics more than once. There arguments don't hold water, but there boats hold plenty of menhaden - 158,000 metric tons enough to fill over 7000 tractor trailer loads, think about it.

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