East Coast fishery officials say their efforts to reduce menhaden harvests were successful, as last year’s harvest— the first year since new restrictions were imposed — resulted in a 26 percent decrease from 2012.
Coastwide harvest by bait and reduction fisheries was 166,077 metric tons, or 2.8 percent below the coastwide cap of 170,800 metric tons, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
An additional 1,942 metric tons was caught as bycatch, but that still kept the total landings within the overall cap, according to ASMFC, an interstate panel that regulates fisheries along the East Coast.
Louis Daniel, of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries and chair of the commission’s Menhaden Management Board, said, “We have taken measurable steps toward ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Atlantic menhaden resource for both its ecosystem services and the fisheries that depend on it.”
Menhaden are a small, oily fish not eaten by humans, yet whose management has been controversial in the Bay.
Menhaden are consumed in huge numbers by predatory fish. Recreational fishing groups have long argued that Omega Protein’s fishing operation based in Reedville, VA, caught too many fish. Omega Protein processes the fish into products from vitamin supplements to animal feed.
Most of the company’s catch takes place in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake and in the ocean near the Bay’s mouth. Measured by pounds, menhaden is by far the largest fishery in the Bay. Many recreational anglers complained Omega Protein’s catch was so large it deprived striped bass and other fish of adequate food. Citing those concerns, the ASMFC set a cap on Omega’s Bay harvest in 2006. But after a 2012 stock assessment concluded that overfishing was taking place, it established the fishery’s first coastwide cap, which took effect last year.
The cap affected not only Omega’s fishery, called the reduction fishery because the menhaden are “reduced” to oils and meal used in other products, but also the bait fisheries which were rapidly growing along the coast to supply menhaden for recreational and commercial fishing.
The ASMFC’s figures showed that Omega’s harvest was reduced 18 percent from 2012, to 131,034 metric tons, while catches in the bait fishery were reduced 45 percent, to 35,043 metric tons.
Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the groups advocating for catch limits, said the caps left an additional 300 million menhaden in the water as food for other fish.
Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega, contended the cap was unevenly enforced along the coast. Several states, particularly Maryland, which he said had been “the most vocally supportive of coastwide menhaden harvest cuts,” exceeded limits when menhaden bycatch in other fisheries was included. “The state appears to have taken few steps to limit or control the large amount of menhaden caught and landed as bycatch, as that ultimately accounted for more than half of Maryland’s total landings,” Landry said in an opinion piece distributed by seafoodnews.com, an industry-supported outfit.
Maryland technically met its quota, although its total landings did exceed the cap set by ASMFC.
Under a provision approved by the commission, a pound net fisherman whose gear catches multiple species, could catch up to 6,000 pounds a day of menhaden as bycatch. Two fishermen with appropriate licenses could catch up to 12,000 pounds as bycatch. However, that bycatch was not counted toward the state’s cap under the commission’s rules because states often had poor bycatch data.
Lynn Fegley, deputy director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service, said the state closed its menhaden bait fishery near the end of June when it had caught 4.12 million pounds of menhaden — about 1 million pounds under its 5.17 million pound cap. She said the state had no good way to estimate in advance the amount of bycatch, which turned out to be almost 2.8 million pounds. Maryland ended up with more bycatch than all other states combined. But, Fegley said, the total coastwide bycatch was only 1.2 percent of the total landings.
“Everybody has to be accountable for their piece,” she said. “I agree with that. But there is also a question of scale here.”
She said the state was working to adjust its menhaden management this year. The ASMFC is expected to adjust menhaden caps at the end of next year.