James Kellum sat uncomfortably in an overstuffed chair in the ante room of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Alexandria, VA, fidgeting with his tie. His large frame strained at the confines of his dark suit, making Kellum look perhaps more like a former professional football player than the commercial fisherman he has been for more than 20 years.
He left his home in Reedville, VA, at 4 a.m. one hot August morning to beat the horrendous Northern Virginia traffic and sat nervously killing time. Kellum, as well as other commercial anglers and conservationists, were waiting near a committee room to hear from, and perhaps testify before, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Committee. This regulatory body manages various saltwater species on the East Coast and their decisions about fish stocks and harvest limits have become hotly contested.
While some commercial anglers harvest stripers, flounder, shrimp, spot, lobster, squid, bluefish or crabs, James Kellum has only one prize in mind when his boats hit the water each morning — the lowly menhaden.
Menhaden, a small and oily baitfish, has loomed quite large in ASMFC management responsibilities, or mismanagement as some would claim. The difficulty of instituting an adequate management solution continues to plague not only the ASMFC, but conservation groups, scientists, and of course commercial anglers like Kellum.
One of the difficulties the ASMFC faces is how to apportion whatever catch it allows between two commercial fishing groups: the bait fishery, those fishermen who catch menhaden to supply them as bait to other fishermen; and the Omega Protein reduction fishery, whose fishermen catch the fish to grind up and process into oils and meals used in other products.
Kellum, who sells his catch almost evenly for bait and for reduction, has an interest in both these camps.
Unlike most recreational anglers who only think of menhaden as something they occasionally pick up at their local bait shop for a few bucks, Kellum deals with menhaden nearly all year long. He has nearly $2 million dollars tied up in Ocean Baits, a company he opened with his sons in 1993. His two boats, Carter's Creek and Indian Creek, fish from early summer to Thanksgiving. The company employs 16 people ranging from deckhands to spotter plane pilots. His boats, commonly referred to as snapper rigs, use commercial nets to harvest tons of menhaden each year.
Harvesting menhaden boasts a long and storied history. The fishery put the tiny town of Reedville on the map, and the town's many grand houses along the main street were built with money from menhaden that were all but mined from the sea. As the town grew, it eventually boasted several fish-packing houses as well as assorted related businesses. Eventually, the town became a hub for harvesting menhaden and the East Coast home of Omega Protein, the largest harvester of menhaden in North America.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of tons of menhaden are harvested by Omega Protein and smaller menhaden operators like Kellum. Recently, large and small companies alike have become anxious, fearing the first harvest limits ever placed on the menhaden industry as a whole.
While much has been written about Omega Protein, which harvests nearly 80 percent of all menhaden landed, scant attention has been paid to smaller companies like Ocean Baits. This could change because the latest menhaden stock assessment indicated menhaden could be at an all-time low of just 8 percent of an unfished stock. This has galvanized conservation groups, who are calling for swift action to deal with this diminutive fish's future. Conservation-minded groups have vigorously argued that dwindling menhaden stocks mean less available food for top predators like stripers, cobia and tuna, not to mention avian predators like pelicans and loons.
The ASMFC is on the cusp of deciding just how many menhaden can be safely harvested and by which part of the fishery — bait or reduction. But this is no easy task. Some have suggested that each state be given a certain total allowable catch of bait. This is problematic because historically, some states have kept very poor records of bait harvested commercially. Critics of this plan also point out that a huge amount of menhaden is caught for the bait fishery in the rich waters off the New Jersey shore and recorded in that state, but many of the boats that fish these waters come from out of state.
While the everyday recreational angler may give scant attention to menhaden harvest, should the price of menhaden bait dramatically rise, this would no doubt draw their ire. Some fear high prices would trigger a cascading loss of sales at local fishing stores or bait shops. Fewer anglers visiting stores would mean less in equipment sales, fewer bookings for fishing guides and of course this could easily spill over into businesses like bed & breakfast establishments and hotels that cater to visiting anglers.
Lower stocks of baitfish like menhaden are a serious concern to fisheries managers, and the problems individual species face often overlap with those of others. For example, river herring — another baitfish whose plight is even worse than menhaden — have in the past been a boon to Maine lobstermen who used them in their traps. Recently, these commercial anglers have had to make a significant shift away from river herring to other species that are more readily available, like menhaden. If menhaden bait prices increase because of harvest cuts, it could put the squeeze on the state of Maine.
"Maine lobstermen will certainly be impacted by significant reductions in the menhaden catch," says Patrice McCarron, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "Lobstermen will have to absorb the increased costs, which will lead to reduced profits for their business. Unfortunately the cost of lobster doesn't increase just because bait costs increase," she said, adding, "As a primary source of jobs and economic activity in our coastal communities, when lobstermen earn less, it's felt by everyone in our coastal communities."
Greg DiDomenico, president of Garden State Seafood Association, has a similar take.
"The menhaden bait fishery is an extremely valuable seasonal fishery in the state of New Jersey, providing much needed employment in coastal communities and providing a highly desirable baitfish for a number of commercial and recreational markets along the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico," DiDomenico said.
He wants to see the ASMFC produce a balanced solution based on hard facts.
"We support fishery management decisions based upon good science, not clever rhetoric, so that menhaden can continue to be available for a commercial fishery and sustain populations of recreationally important species."
Unfortunately for Kellum back in Virginia, reductions in menhaden harvests will affect him either way. Half of Kellum's landings are sold to Pride of Virginia, a local fish house where the fish are offloaded then packaged and shipped to bait shops along much of the East Coast. The other half of Kellum's landing are sold to Omega Protein to supplement the company's own harvests. Omega's landings are primarily used to create fish oils for food additives or high-quality protein in cattle feed and pet food.
Conservationists of nearly every stripe have been urging the ASMFC for a meaningful decrease in the menhaden harvest for years. They feel the time for action is long overdue. While they agree that harvest cuts may affect some businesses negatively, doing nothing is no longer an option, they argue. Some have pointed out that having an overall reduction, coupled with a few good years of recruitment might result in a very positive outcome.
"A rebuilt population," says Jay Odell, Mid-Atlantic Marine Program Director for the Nature Conservancy, "means long-term security for menhaden harvesters and for all of the marine life trying to find enough menhaden for breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Capt. Paul Eidman of Menhaden Defenders, a grass-roots organization uniting anglers to restore menhaden populations, sees it much the same way.
"Under no circumstances can we afford to delay setting a catch limit on this year's fishery," Eidman said. "The bait sector should not bear the full brunt of the deep cuts required," he added, noting "They provide many jobs up and down the East Coast and have caught a relatively small percentage of fish."
A decision from the ASMFC is expected in December so state legislative bodies like Virginia's General Assembly can consider the matter. Until that decision is made, many in the commercial fishing community will be on pins and needles.
Kellum is a man much more comfortable in all-weather gear standing on a heaving boat in foul weather and managing a briny net than he is in a suit. He believes that the ASMFC makes many of its decisions in a theoretical world consisting of graphs, charts and statistical models, but has little regard for how its decisions affect small business owners like him. "I wish," Kellum said, "they were required to spend time on menhaden boats and could actually see what is going on out here prior to making their decisions."
Later this fall, Kellum will again make his pilgrimage to a meeting room where the ASMFC will be deciding the future of menhaden and those that harvest them. He'll again rise early, don his suit and no doubt he'll fidget with his tie while he waits to testify. He just hopes someone there is willing to listen.