ECO-FAIL

Ecological Reference Points for Menhaden are Ready, But Menhaden Managers Are Not

by Ken Hinman, November 17, 2017

Earlier this week, the ASMFC’s Menhaden Management Board, meeting in Baltimore to finalize Amendment 3 to its Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan, voted to wait at least another two years before adopting catch limits that account for the vital role menhaden play in the ecosystem.

Why wait, when precautionary, science-based “ecological reference points” (ERPs) for forage species are available right now?  Because by waiting for their own team of scientists to produce their own “menhaden-specific” reference points, east coast states could get another 2 years of higher quota.  Sticking with single-species reference points for 2018 and 2019, they raised the total allowable catch (TAC) to 216,000 MT, an 8% increase over current levels.  They could have gone much higher – the reduction industry asked for 240,000 tons to make their fisheries “whole” – but that would have been unseemly since Amendment 3 was supposed to be about making the ecosystem whole, not just the fisheries.

Interestingly, commissioners used the promise of menhaden-specific ERPs being developed in just two years to argue against adopting new standards in the interim.  The TAC was set through 2019 “with the expectation that the setting of the TAC for subsequent years will be guided by menhaden-specific ecological reference points,” according to the ASMFC press release on the meeting.  A motion to hold the fishery to the 216,000 ton level until ERPs are actually utilized for management garnered little support .  Sources within the ASMFC tell me the reference points generated in-house are not likely to be implemented before the 2021 fishing season.

There was one victory for conservation, however, lowering of the cap on reduction harvest in Chesapeake Bay from 87,000 to 51,000 tons.  The Bay is the most critical nursery area for menhaden as well as a prime breeding and feeding ground for numerous predators such as striped bass and osprey.  How important is the cap?  The reduction fleet, based out of Reedville on the Virginia side of the bay, took an average of 150,000 tons a year from the bay prior to 2000.

At the end of the day – two exhausting days, actually – fishermen and conservationists were disappointed, frustrated and angry.  By postponing the use of ecosystem-based standards for conserving menhaden once more – it’s been an action item on the Menhaden Management Board’s agenda for 10 years now – and increasing the coast-wide TAC yet again, the Board went against the advice of over 150,000 members of the public (an ASMFC record), over 100 fishery scientists, and nearly 100 fishing and environmental organizations, weighing in on behalf of predatory fish and the fisheries they support, seabirds and marine mammals that all depend on menhaden to survive and thrive.

If the only advice the Board will accept is from its own scientific advisors, on their terms, then that’s where we’ll be for the next two years, making certain they get it right – so the ASMFC will have no more excuses and, most importantly, for the long-term health of the coastal ocean.

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