Menhaden regulation is under the control of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Until 2005 there were no regulations on the quantity of menhaden harvested. However, 13 of the 15 states that make up the ASMFC prohibit "industrial fishing" for menhaden in their waters. Industrial fishing is generally defined as catching fish by means of purse seines for reduction to oils and fish meal.
There are no restrictions of any kind in federal waters. During 2003-04, there was concern about a perceived shortage of menhaden which resulted in about 25,000 comments after public hearings on limiting purse seining. The vast majority of the public was in favor of severe limitations on the industry up to and including a moratorium.
This concern was directed primarily to the Chesapeake Bay and the end result was the adoption of a precautionary cap for harvest in the Bay by means of purse seines for a five-year period. During this time, research projects were conducted to determine whether the Bay was depleted.
Measurements of the abundance of menhaden on a coastwide basis are conducted periodically. The stock assessment process is accomplished a by computer model that is heavily driven by the industrial harvest.
While abundance figures continue to shrink, the stock is considered "not overfished and overfishing is not occurring." The limits used to describe the stock abundance indicate that the stock is capable of sufficient reproduction to replenish itself. This characterization persists in the face of continualy decreasing recruitment for over a decade.
At the same time, the industrial harvest has been declining despite an increase in effort and a movement toward significantly more of the catch taking place in federal waters. Other indicators of declining abundance are found in undernourished gamefish, changes in the location of birds dependent on menhaden for forage, and changes in the range of menhaden up and down the East Coast.
None of the ecological aspects of menhaden or their effect on water quality are adequately reflected in the present stock assessment methodology. While the ASMFC agreed 10 years ago on the need for a change in stock assessment methods from single species to ecological limits, no discernible progress has been noted.
Given this information, why has there not been a more aggressive program to protect menhaden and to allow them to function more effectively in their role as forage fish and filter feeder?
The principal reason lies with the state of Virginia, where the legislature controls the regulation or lack thereof for menhaden. It should be noted that this is the only species not regulated through natural resources personnel. Because the fishery is now down to one company-Omega Protein of Reedville, VA-it appears that Omega has been persuasive at the state level and thereby avoided any further restrictions on their activity. The ASMFC has not indicated a willingness to use their authority to make changes.
Omega makes the claim that any substantial change in where, when and how much they harvest would likely put Reedville out of business, resulting in putting about 240 people out of work.
While the prospect of more unemployment in a period of economic turmoil is upsetting, a broader view of the economics may be rewarding. An impact study by Southwick Associates indicates that the Reedville operation results in a positive economic impact of $45 million annually of which the state of Virginia is the primary beneficiary. That needs to be compared to the value of the recreational fishery in Maryland and Virginia. Currently, that fishery amounts to more than $2 billion annually and supports about 16,000 jobs. Feedback from that segment indicates declines in income because it is getting harder to find gamefish.
Studies of rockfish dietary needs indicate declining health as the result of lack of food. While it is difficult to put a number on the negative economic impact on recreational fisheries, there is not much question that it it exceeds by a significant margin the loss of the industrial harvest of menhaden.
Additionally, the health of the Bay continues to decline despite the many millions of dollars spent on measures to improve its condition. The filtration value of menhaden in Bay restoration is significant and that value declines as the menhaden stock declines.
All in all, it seems that the value of a more abundant menhaden stock exceeds the value of the industrial fishery by a wide margin. The study undertaken by James Kirkley of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science should put some quantitative values on this issue some time in the later part of this year.
While the degree to which the menhaden stock has declined is uncertain and the research undertaken to shed light on the depletion has yet to produce any better insight, it is widely accepted that the stock is in fact in trouble. Because the ASMFC seems to be unable to manage this species effectively there are few options available to meet the public demand that action be taken. The most direct method would be federal intervention by means of legislation banning the industrial harvesting of menhaden in federal and state waters.