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.