The following op-ed appeared in The Roanoke Times earlier this week.
The next few months will be crucial for Atlantic menhaden, a small, silvery fish vital to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast. Also called pogie, fatback, and bunker, menhaden have been dubbed "the most important fish in the sea" because of their critical ecological and economic roles.
Menhaden are a major food source for striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, summer flounder, dolphin, whales, ospreys, loons, and pelicans. They are also the target of Virginia’s largest fishery, based in Reedville, that catches and converts menhaden to fish meal and oil. Menhaden are also harvested for bait to catch blue crabs and a variety of sport fish.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a partnership of coastal states from Maine to Florida, is considered the unbiased arbiter of menhaden science along the Atlantic Coast. In 2010 and 2012, the commission published stock assessments of the menhaden population that raise very troubling issues and indicate the need for greater conservation of menhaden.
Both ASMFC's 2010 and 2012 assessments clearly showed the menhaden population at or near all-time lows, or about eight percent of what an unfished population would be. Also, the number of young fish entering the population each year has remained remarkably low for nearly 20 years, a serious sign the population is not healthy.
The menhaden fishing industry has questioned ASMFC's science and consistently denied that menhaden are in trouble. ASMFC's peer-reviewed data, however, paint a much different picture, showing the population is experiencing overfishing and has been for at least 32 of the past 54 years.
The industry also contends menhaden numbers today are the same as 50 years ago, implying all is well, but neglecting that 50 years ago the population had plummeted and was declared overfished.
Finally, the industry uses the threat of massive job losses to argue against harvest reductions. However, there once were numerous menhaden industrial plants up and down the East Coast, employing thousands of workers. Today, with menhaden numbers the lowest on record, those fisheries have severely contracted. The Reedville plant is the only one left.
Is maintaining the status quo really the best course for the industry? In the long term, conserving menhaden will restore jobs, not destroy them.
Clearly, more aggressive steps must be taken to protect the menhaden population to enhance both the coastal ecosystem and menhaden-related jobs. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation calls upon the ASMFC to produce a robust menhaden conservation plan when it meets on Dec. 14, and for the Virginia General Assembly to approve its implementation during its 2013 legislative session.
CBF's Hampton Roads Senior Scientist