In an historic victory for conservationists, a coalition of Atlantic Coastal states today voted to reduce the catch of menhaden -– sometimes called “the most important fish in the sea” –- by 20 percent annually with the intention of ending overfishing.
"Overfishing will kill jobs, as the logical conclusion of a dramatically declining population of menhaden is no fish," said Will Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Today, the fish got a break -- and so did all of us who love the Bay and appreciate jobs dependant on commercial and recreational fisheries."
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) approved the catch limits by a 13-3 vote during a packed and sometimes tense meeting in Baltimore. Fishermen marched down the aisle of the conference room at a Best Western Hotel and Conference Center and stood over the committee during the deliberations, many with their arms crossed. Environmentalists also crowded to the front of the room, many holding bright yellow signs proclaiming, “I support Menhaden conservation!”
“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation roundly applauds the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for adopting a strong, science-based plan to better protect menhaden, a fish vital to the marine ecosystem and to important commercial fisheries,” said Chris Moore, Senior Scientist in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s office in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Menhaden are a small, oily fish that are a critical source of food for striped bass, bluefish, osprey, loons, dolphins, whales and other species. They have been overfished 52 out of the last 54 years, based on standards adopted recently by the ASMFC. Menhaden populations are now at the lowest levels on record, at only about 8 percent of their historic highs.
About 65 percent of all adult menhaden are removed from East Cast waters every year, most by industrial fishing fleets out of Reedville, Virginia, that deploy spotter planes, huge purse-shaped nets, and suction equipment to vacuum up tens of millions of the fish. Most of the menhaden are caught by a single company, Omega Protein, which employs about 300 workers. Omega processes the fish to produce livestock feed, fish oil pills, and other commercial products.
The action by the ASMFC means that the Virginia General Assembly will have to vote to adopt the fishing limits, or face possible sanctions from the federal government (which could include a moratorium on menhaden fishing).
“In Virginia, the menhaden fishery is the only one managed by politicians, not scientists,” said CBF Virginia Executive Director Ann Jennings. “CBF urges Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and the Virginia General Assembly to adopt the commission’s management plan during the 2013 legislative session. Failure to do so could result in sanctions that threaten the livelihoods of thousands of hardworking Virginians.”
Virginia’s representative on the commission advocated for delay in action, or a smaller catch reduction – 10 percent or 15 percent, instead of the final 20 percent. (A proposal for a 25 percent reduction did not pass). In the end, Virginia was joined by only New Jersey and Florida in opposing the 20 percent catch reduction, while voting in favor were Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’re disappointed,” said Ron Lukens, senior fisheries biologist for Omega Protein. “It’s going to have some effect on the company….. There is a 180 year history of menhaden fishing in (the Northern Neck) and it’s deeply, deeply ingrained in the culture of the area and the people’s lifestyles.”
Jack Travelstead, Commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, predicted that at least one of Omega Protein’s eight fishing boats, with about 15 fishermen working on it, will be idled because of the new catch limits.
When asked whether the Virginia General Assembly will vote to approve the catch limits, Travelstead replied: “That’s the ultimate question. And I don’t know.”
Many conservationists argue that the catch limits will have the opposite effect -– and ultimately save the jobs of the Reedville workers and many others by creating a more sustainable fishery that won’t be destroyed by excessive harvesting.
This was the case with the decision by Virginia and Maryland four years ago to limit the catch of female blue crabs. The limits spurred a near tripling of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population, which ultimately helped the watermen and the broader economy. Restrictions on catching striped bass in the late 1980s triggered a dramatic rebound on that sport fish.
“History really shows that responsibly managing fisheries pays off,” said Jay Odell, Director of the Mid-Atlantic Marine Program for the Nature Conservancy. “Think of blue crabs and striped bass, where smart management really helped those populations to recover. And that was good for the people who fished for them, and good for the whole ecosystem --- for all of nature.”
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation