EIDMAN: Don’t increase menhaden catch limits

After what seems to have been a never ending winter, our marine waters have come back to life with large schools of migrating fish. American shad are making their way up the Delaware, Hudson and Raritan rivers, and Alewife herring have arrived in Sandy Hook Bay as flocks of gannets dive upon them.

Schools of adult Atlantic menhaden (aka bunker), the “most important fish in the sea,” have also moved into the warm tidal backwaters of the bays and rivers of central Jersey. And as the old timers say, “when the forsythia come into bloom, stripers shall loom.”

Migration is an important part of the life cycle of these “forage” species, and it represents an essential component of the larger ecosystem, since these fish are the foundation of the marine food web. Many popular inshore game fish in New Jersey rely on these forage fish as a source of nutrition. Striped bass, summer flounder (fluke), bluefish, weakfish all count on menhaden to migrate in and out of our local waterways.

It is with some irony, then, that fisheries managers at an upcoming meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, in early May, will entertain a proposal to increase the commercial take of bunker. This proposal is based on a “single species” model that does not take into account the nutritional needs of menhaden’s predators. Little known fact: the Atlantic menhaden fishery is the largest commercial fishery on the East Coast, with more than 170,000 metric tons of menhaden landed last year.

And if this were not bad enough, the majority of the fish caught in this fishery are ground up into fish meal, and sold for pennies a pound in an international commodities market. “Reduction fishing” as it is known, was banned a decade ago in New Jersey thanks to the hard work of recreational fishermen and the state Legislature. Only one East Coast state, Virginia, still allows it and only one company, Omega Protein Inc, still grinds bunker up for fish meal and oil.

The biggest buyers of this protein-packed fish meal are the fish farms of Asia, where it is used to raise salmon, shrimp, tilapia, etc. Yes, America’s primary forage fish, the fish that our entire East Coast ecosystem depends upon for survival, is ground up and shipped to China for profit.

Virginia is allotted a whopping 85 percent of the total coastwide quota, while New Jersey has just 11 percent. New York, a state with relatively large menhaden populations, currently holds less than 1 percent of the coastwide quota. The bunker caught in New Jersey and New York are used predominantly for trap bait in commercial lobster and crab fisheries, while a small portion is used for recreational live and frozen bait. Many of these fish are shipped 450 miles by truck to Maine for lobster bait, as the local supply has vaporized in New England.

Although it is important to make sure that localized depletion does not occur in places like New Jersey, the “bait sector” provides jobs and services that support baymen’s families and communities all along the coast. That’s why fishery managers should re-allocate the coastwide quota so that a larger percentage goes to the “bait” states, not the grind-it-up-and-send-it-to-China state. Not only is this a higher value use of this fish, but it better reflects the true historical catch of menhaden on the East Coast.

In 2012, managers wisely established the first-ever harvest cap on this vital fishery, giving the fish population a chance to rebound. Managers should build on this progress by keeping the needs of menhaden predators in mind. Increasing harvest levels at a time when so many important gamefish species like striped bass and weakfish are hanging on by a thread makes zero sense.

Managing for abundant baitfish in our waters is like putting money in an ecosystem bank that will pay dividends to recreational and commercial fishermen who rely on healthy and abundant predator species. It should take no more than a year for scientists to develop robust recommendations for ecologically derived catch limits, or for the states to sort out more equitable allocations of catch. In the meantime, managers should stay the course with menhaden, avoiding catch increases in 2015 and moving forward to implement ecosystem based management of menhaden.

Capt. Paul Eidman is owner-operator of New Jersey-based Reel Therapy Fishing Charters and founder of Menhaden Defenders.org.