One of the most crucial fish in the Chesapeake Bay’s aquatic food web is getting more protection from potential overfishing, but not as much as some environmentalists and state fishery managers had wanted.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission agreed Oct. 20 to cut the allowable commercial harvest of Atlantic menhaden 10% from what it has been the last three years.
The commission’s decision marked a historic shift in the way it establishes catch levels. Traditionally, policymakers have relied on abundance and death rates of a single species to make that call. In August, commission members switched to an “ecological reference point” that accounts for menhaden's value as food for predators, especially striped bass.
While the menhaden population is considered relatively robust, striped bass numbers are low. The big dilemma for regulators: Should the small, oily fish be managed for the small striped bass population that exists now or the larger one they envision building?
The vote by the commission’s Menhaden Management Board was 13–5 in favor of the 10% reduction, with state delegations from Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Rhode Island in opposition.
That means the maximum commercial harvest in all East Coast waters for 2021 and 2022 would be 194,000 metric tons. A 51,000-metric ton cap on how much of the menhaden catch can come from the Chesapeake Bay would remain unchanged.
During the annual meeting of the commission, which regulates migratory species in state waters, backers of a measure to reduce catches by 20% fell short of the support required for approval.
“In any good marriage, there has to be a compromise,” said A.G. "Spud" Woodward, a retired Georgia fisheries manager who is the board’s chairman.
Every Chesapeake Bay watershed state on the board — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia — sided with the 10% cut.
A gradual reduction in the annual catch will help soften the economic blow to the seafood industry, said Steven Bowman, a board member and head of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the state’s tidal fishery regulator.
“We have to consider the people that are involved in this as well,” he said. Virginia is home base of Omega Protein Corp., the largest menhaden harvester in Chesapeake and Atlantic waters. It employs 260 people at its processing plant in Reedville, VA.
While most of the menhaden harvest gets processed into animal feed and human dietary supplements, a significant portion of the catch is used as bait for other fisheries. A 20% cut would siphon about $1 million annually from the fishing industry in New Jersey alone, said Jeff Kaelin, former chair of the ASMFC board’s advisory panel and a government relations specialist with Lund’s Fisheries in New Jersey.
“It’s millions of dollars coastwide to not realize the catches we had last year and in previous years,” he added.
The steepness of the harvest reduction may have been a point of contention at the meeting, but the use of the new ecological reference point wasn’t. Justin Davis, assistant director of Connecticut’s marine fisheries program, called the change “a brave step” that should lead to a more cautious approach toward menhaden’s management. He called on his fellow board members to adopt the 20% cut.
At that level, the seafood industry would have a 50-50 chance of causing more menhaden deaths than the goal set by the commission, according to the agency’s scientists. With the 10% cuts, the chances of that happening rise to 58% in 2021 and 52% in 2022, they said.
But other members pushed back, stating that there are plenty of menhaden for the current number of striped bass, which are also known as rockfish. And the annual menhaden catch routinely falls short of the regulatory limit, providing an extra buffer, they said.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental groups have urged regulators for years to look beyond menhaden’s economic value to consider their importance to predators. The newly reduced harvest limits demonstrate that the new tack is working, said Chris Moore, a Bay Foundation ecosystem scientist.
“The new lower limit will help ensure that striped bass will have an abundance of forage, which is vitally important to a successful rebound of this population,” Moore said in a statement. “The new quota will also support a healthier ecosystem for a variety of fish, bird, and marine mammal species that fuel the success of many local businesses.”
Omega Protein maintained after the meeting that it preferred no change in the catch. But the 10% decrease “is not an unreasonable step toward moving to ecological management of the species,” the company said in a statement.