Menhaden Bait and Switch

WILL THE ASMFC SNATCH DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY?”

By Ken Hinman

On Tuesday, May 5, a 15-state ASMFC Menhaden Management Board will decide the next steps in conserving “the most important fish in the sea,” based on the latest stock assessment; that is, whether to continue toward an ecosystems approach that protects menhaden’s ecological role as forage, or reverse course in favor of the industry. – K.H.]

For at least 15 years now, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has been talking about how to make sure we leave enough menhaden in the water to serve their critical role as prey for dozens of ocean predators. But without action, it’s just that – talk.

And now the one action taken so far – a 20% reduction in coast-wide catch agreed to in 2012 through Amendment 2 to the Interstate Menhaden Plan – could be in jeopardy. The measure was intended, as the ASMFC announced at the time, “to increase (menhaden) abundance and availability as a forage species.” It was widely acknowledged to be an interim measure, holding the line while the commission establishes ecosystem-based rules to better balance fishing and predator needs long into the future. Nonetheless, it was a big win for striped bass, bluefin tuna and the many other marine animals that feed on menhaden, as well as the valuable recreational and commercial fisheries these predator fish support.

At the ASMFC’s Winter Meeting back in February, however, there was talk about upping the catch of menhaden again. Why? Because a new study says the fishery is in better shape than previously thought. Never mind that it also says overall abundance of menhaden is still low, which is what matters most when assessing a forage species.

[For a review of what the new menhaden stock assessment really says, read Marking Time on Menhaden.]

But for some members of the Menhaden Management Board, in particular those who represent reduction or bait fisheries in their home states, the only thing that matters is getting back the hundreds of millions of fish they’ve had to leave in the water these past two years.

Will the ASMFC succumb to industry pressure, reverse course and give the fish back to the fisheries, on the basis of a stock assessment that, once again, fails to take into account menhaden’s important ecological role? That question will likely be answered at the Commission’s Spring Meeting on May 5, when there will be a full-blown debate about what comes next, including the possibility of increasing menhaden quotas to pre-Amendment 2 levels.

Wild Oceans, joined by other fishing and conservation groups, is calling on the Menhaden Management Board to keep the existing catch limits in place while initiating an addendum to adopt ecological reference points specifically designed to set aside enough fish to provide forage for all components of the ecosystem (as federal guidelines for forage species recommend).

For the Commission to go back on its oft-made promise to protect the ecological role of menhaden, by increasing catch levels now before developing ecological reference points to guide management, it would have to:

  • Ignore the fact that menhaden are a keystone prey fish on the Atlantic coast, supporting a myriad of predatory fish, marine mammals and seabirds;
  • Disregard the fact that members of the public, in the hundreds of thousands, have consistently urged them to make protecting the ecological role of menhaden the priority; and,
  • Forget that the action they took only two years ago, reducing the catch of menhaden, was meant not just to stop overfishing in the conventional sense but to increase the number of menhaden left in the water as forage.

Next Tuesday, I expect the ASMFC to reject increases in the menhaden quota and begin to take a serious look at a range of ERPs, identified by its Menhaden Technical Committee and others; evaluate each according to clearly articulated ecosystem goals; and move forward in the conservation of menhaden with full stakeholder participation.

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