The following editorial appears in the Winter 2018 edition of The Wild Oceans Horizon. Become a member to receive our newsletter on a regular basis.
The Year Looked Good on Paper
by Ken Hinman
We did everything we could to get where we wanted to be. But it turned out not to be enough.
Three years ago, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to amend the Menhaden Plan to account for its role as forage for dependent predators – something the public has been asking them to do since the beginning of the century – we were more than ready.
We presented the results of an exhaustive study of ways to set conservation goals for prey fish, published as Resource Sharing: The Berkeley Criterion in 2015. Our report confirmed a consensus among fisheries scientists from around the world that setting the target population at 75 percent of the virgin population is the way to go. It reduces the impact on predators by about half compared to conventional targets, while still allowing reasonable yields to the fisheries.
We shared the results with our allies in advocacy as well as the ASMFC’s Menhaden Management Board, Advisory Panel, Technical Committee and Plan Development Team. We were excited that when Draft Amendment 3 was released for public comment last year, “the 75% solution” was front and center among several options for ecological reference points (ERPs).
An unprecedented coalition of fishermen, environmentalists, birders, whale watchers, etc., from Maine to Florida worked together to spread the word. As a result, over 150,000 members of the public – an ASMFC record – and over 100 fishing and conservation groups voiced support for implementing ERPs in 2018, with over 99% of them backing the 75% option.
So what did the ASMFC do when the menhaden board met to finalize the amendment last November? They voted to wait a few more years on ERPs while additional research is done, then raised the coast-wide catch another 8%.
Over the holiday break I re-read Joseph Monninger’s memoir, Home Waters, about taking his aging lab, Nellie, on her last fly-fishing trip out west. At one point, he muses: “Even the best fishermen catch fish only a small percentage of the time, which means we persevere in a sport that features failure as its main ingredient.”
In the sport of fishing, failure only enhances our successes, which consoles the spirit. There is little consolation in the Amendment 3 eco-failure, however, which wasn’t ours, but the ASMFC’s. So before we respond – which we must and will – we have to understand the why and the how.
Why did it happen? A majority of state representatives wanted to give their fishermen more fish, and the only way to do that was to vote to postpone ecosystem-based management so they could continue to use single-species rules and fish at higher quota levels for at least a few more years.
How did they get away with it? By ignoring the 117 fishery scientists who signed a letter endorsing the 75% ERP and deferring to a small team of their own scientists who argued against it, in part because they don’t understand it. And in part because they want the menhaden board to wait until their own new, untested models are completed; models they admit will give only a partial picture of menhaden’s role in the ecosystem.
As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
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