Regional fisheries officials in August reaffirmed their desire to reduce the catch of menhaden along the East Coast, even as they acknowledged greater uncertainty about what the catch limit should be.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission agreed to take public comments this fall on a range of options to reduce harvest of the small, oily fish that has sparked a huge controversy in recent years.
But it also concluded that the latest update to its menhaden stock assessment has flaws that cast doubt on its usefulness to identify the optimal size for the coastal menhaden population.
The ASMFC, which consists of state and federal fishery managers, is responsible for managing migratory species in state waters — those within 3 miles of the shoreline — along the East Coast.
Last November, in the wake of a stock assessment showing that overfishing was taking place, its Menhaden Management Board agreed for the first time to limit the coastwide catch of menhaden to protect the stock. Recreational anglers and conservationists claimed victory, having long contended that too many of the fish are being harvested, depriving striped bass and other predators of an adequate food supply.
But an update to that assessment clouded the picture. The results—generated by a computer model — poorly matched actual data about the stock in several instances. Although those problems had been evident in the last assessment, the magnitude of the mismatch increased.
Ron Lukens, a representative of Omerga Protein, the largest menhaden harvester along the coast, voiced concerns to the board about "significant issues with the latest stock assessment."
But the scientific technical committee that advises the menhaden board concluded that uncertainties in the model likely don't change the overall conclusion that menhaden overfishing is taking place, because other data also support that conclusion.
"As harvest levels have increased since 2008 and there has been no significant increase in stock size, overfishing is still likely occurring," the Technical Advisory Committee said in a memo.
At the same time, the technical committee said it is more difficult to estimate the magnitude of overfishing.
The measure approved last fall was a two-step process aimed first at reducing the catch enough to end overfishing, then further reducing catches with the intent to rebuild the stock to a healthier size.
"We've got to end overfishing," said Louis Daniel, a North Carolina fisheries manager who chairs ASMFC's menhaden board. But because the stock assessment "blew up," he added, the extent to which cuts should be made beyond what's needed to end overfishing is uncertain.
"Until we get a new stock assessment, what justification do we have to continue ratcheting down?" Daniel asked.
But the next "benchmark" stock assessment, which would use new models and potentially different information, isn't scheduled until 2015, and ASMFC staff expressed doubt that it could be significantly accelerated.
The public comment document approved by the board will ask for input regarding the extent to which the menhaden catch should be reduced, and how the catch should be divided between the reduction fishery operated by Omega Protein out of Reedville, VA, and the smaller — but growing — bait fishery which operates in states up and down the coast and is responsible for about a quarter of the total harvest.
The so-called reduction fishery catches menhaden and "reduces" the fish into vitamin supplements, animal food and a variety of other products. The bait fishery supplies menhaden for use by recreational anglers, lobstermen, crabbers and others.
But uncertainty about the stock led the board to revise or eliminate a number of management options from the public comment document, including an option that would have slashed harvest levels by 75 percent.
Also up for comment will be future harvests in the Chesapeake. Until now, ASMFC's only menhaden catch limit was an annual cap of 109,020 metric tons on the reduction fishery within the Bay. That cap is set to expire after next year. Up for comment will be the question of whether that limit should be extended, changed or allowed to expire.
Menhaden are part of a larger debate over the extent to which forage fish should be targeted by commercial fisheries. About 37 percent of the global fish catch consists of small forage fish — such as herring, anchovies and menhaden. They are used for livestock feed, food in aquaculture and a variety of other purposes.
In a report released this spring, a team of scientists said global forage fish catches should be cut in half. It cited menhaden as one of the species that warranted greater protection.
The ASMFC's public comment document is expected to be available on its website in early September, along with a comment and hearing schedule. The ASMFC website is www.asmfc.org.
Final action by the ASMFC is expected by the end of the year.