Policy Underway for Unmanaged Mid-Atlantic Forage Fisheries

Policy Underway for Unmanaged Mid-Atlantic Forage Fisheries
WO-team Wild Ocean Team
Published On November 15, 2023
image description Reading Time 6 minutes

Wild Oceans has for the last six years been engaged in ensuring strong implementation of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (Council) Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment (UFOA). We did not have to wait long for a challenge to this crucial safeguard for Atlantic coast forage species: in 2021, fisheries managers received a proposal for large scale “experimental” fishing on Atlantic thread herring (Opisthonema oglinum), one of the species protected under the UFOA. (See “Meeting the Challenge of a Shifting Prey Base” in Issue 166 of the Wild Oceans Horizon.)

The UFOA, which came about with tremendous public support, “prohibits the development of new and expansion of existing directed commercial fisheries on unmanaged forage species in mid Atlantic federal waters until the Council has had an adequate opportunity to assess the scientific information relating to any new or expanded directed fisheries and consider potential impacts to existing fisheries, fishing communities, and the marine ecosystem.” Sixteen taxa of forage species are conserved through a 1,700 pound combined possession limit. These forage fish are key parts of the preyscape for our cherished larger fish and wildlife – the food base that is undergoing rapid change with a changing ocean climate.

When creating the UFOA, the MidAtlantic Council made it clear that fisheries could eventually be permitted for UFOA species, provided these fisheries comply with the UFOA objective. Exempted Fishing Permits (EFPs) were chosen as the first step for the Council and the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to consider allowing new fisheries or the expansion of existing fisheries. However, the UFOA did not include specific criteria to evaluate EFP applications for consistency with the UFOA objective stated above, and with the Council’s long standing ecosystem policy, “to support the maintenance of an adequate forage base in the Mid-Atlantic to ensure ecosystem productivity, structure and function and to support sustainable fishing communities.”

Four years after UFOA adoption, an EFP application for a new high volume purse seine fishery for Atlantic thread herring was submitted to fisheries managers by Lund’s Fisheries. Alarmed by the scope of the request, the potential for bycatch of feeding predators and other small pelagic fish (depleted river herring and shad among them), and the damaging precedent approval of the EFP would set, Wild Oceans was joined by the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Conservation Law Foundation, Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association, Gotham Whale, International Game Fish Association, Menhaden Defenders, National Audubon Society, Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, Riverkeeper, Inc., Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association in submitting a letter to the Mid Atlantic Council’s Ecosystem and Ocean Planning (EOP) Committee ahead of a fall, 2021 meeting to review the EFP application. In the letter, we opposed advancing the EFP application for further consideration and recommended the Committee turn its attention to developing criteria for reviewing EFP applications for new or expanding forage fisheries.

We are encouraged the Council has responded in two positive ways. First, the Council declined to provide a letter of support for the EFP to GARFO, which is how the Council would assist with advancing the application. Second, the Council prioritized, through its 2023 Implementation Plan finalized in December 2022, developing criteria, in the form of a “policy or process” for evaluating EFP applications on UFOA species, to be completed by a target date of October 2023.

Work on the Unmanaged Forage policy/process kicked off in April with meetings of the Mid Atlantic Council’s Ecosystem and Ocean Planning Committee and Advisory Panel. Wild Oceans rallied our allies to submit comments applauding the Council’s decision to develop the policy and/or process, as well as strongly supporting Council staff’s proposal to use the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s (Pacific Council) procedure, known as Council Operating Procedure 24, (COP 24) as a template. COP 24 was developed in a close collaboration between NMFS and the Pacific Council, and provides a robust template for the Mid Atlantic Council. Similar to COP 24, this policy/procedure will provide specifics on how to evaluate an EFP proposal’s impacts on the target unmanaged forage species, dependent predators, essential fish habitats, and fishing communities. Notably, the Council cites the development of this policy/process as helping to fulfill its goals for building resilient climate ready fisheries.

We were pleased that a majority of commenters on the Ecosystem and Ocean Planning Committee and Ecosystem and Ocean Planning Advisory Body who reviewed our letter and provided feedback on the staff recommendations for the policy/process – were supportive of the staff proposal. This in turn helped to ensure the Council at its June 2023 meeting was on board with staff’s intent to present a draft policy/procedure to the Council for potential adoption at its October meeting.

In regard to the Lund’s EFP application, we have serious concerns about GARFO’s process to date in evaluating the application. Ultimately, authority to approve or deny an EFP application resides with GARFO’s Regional Administrator, who must determine that the purpose, design, and administration of the EFP are consistent with management objectives and the MagnusonStevens Act. While GARFO in early 2023 informed the applicant it would not approve the EFP application in its current form, the agency has not divulged how it will evaluate the EFP’s compliance with the UFOA. Also concerning is the fact that the only publicly available communication from GARFO to Lund’s shows that GARFO has focused its concerns solely on requirements to protect endangered species  not consistency with the UFOA’s objectives. Despite our efforts to reach out to several agency representatives through scheduled phone meetings, we have not received satisfactory answers from GARFO about their review and approval process. This is a perfect example of where an EFP policy/process would ensure rigor and transparency when EFP applications are reviewed.

Leading up to the October Mid Atlantic Council meeting, Wild Oceans will continue to work with our allies to get the critical policy/process in place. And, we will continue to watchdog the separate but related process at GARFO in regard to reviewing the Atlantic thread herring EFP application.