EIDMAN: Future of bunker on the hook again

This fall, New Jersey’s surfcasters are thankful that there are giant schools of this year’s young, “peanut” bunkers moved down the coast, causing striped bass and bluefish to come in tight to the beach within casting distance. It has been decades since this occurred and it is clear to all of us on the water that conservation measures put into place back in 2012 are working.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that fisheries managers voted to increase the 2017 catch last month. Not only are managers putting the ecosystem health at risk, but they are unfairly giving the lion’s share of the catch to one company in Virginia. Omega Protein Inc. will get another 22 million pounds of fish, jeopardizing future awesome bass blitzes, whale and dolphin sightings, and osprey and bald eagles flying overhead with fresh bunker in their talons.

Why would representatives from New Jersey (and New York and Delaware) vote in favor of a catch increase when 85 percent of the quota will go to the only state that still allows reduction fishing on the East Coast: Virginia? Virginia and the industrial fishing company Omega Protein Inc. will receive 85 percent of the increase in the Atlantic menhaden harvest. This is yet another sad example of a rigged system that allows Omega Protein to grind up a publicly owned resource and ship it to China for fish farm food. Meanwhile predators like striped bass and bluefish that rely on menhaden as food are completely disregarded.

Instead of working to increase the catch to the benefit of Omega Protein, why not work for a more equitable split of the quota between states? The reality is that if the quota was split more fairly to the commercial fishery, they would be able to operate more efficiently and sustainably. The bait netters of New Jersey would be able to work well into November like they used to and Omega Protein would catch fewer fish in the Chesapeake Bay, a striped bass nursery.

We can look at this another way. If the bunker populations are as healthy as industry claims, then why do other states need Jersey bunker for bait? Why does New Jersey-based Lund’s Fisheries send bunker-packed 18 wheelers hundreds of miles to Maine and Florida for lobster and crab trap bait? The answer is simple. Unfortunately, bunker, or pogie’s as they are called in New England, no longer swim abundantly in local waters.

The historic range of the Atlantic menhaden is from Maine to Florida, but the head and the tail of the entire population is missing. The schools that were once off New England are just now showing small signs of recovery but only after the catch cap was put in place. South Carolina, Georgia and Florida have yet to see a significant increase in abundance. More than 100 fish factories used to operate up and down the coast, but now there is only one left in Reedville, Virginia.

If conservative management of menhaden is applied, and we leave enough fish in the water for all the predators, including bait fishermen, then our East Coast ecosystem and our fishery will flourish — a win-win. We are all in this together, and with just a little moderation, nature will work her magic and the fish will come back. Sadly, our representatives do not seem to get that.

Now we have a chance to speak out about this issue. On Thursday, Dec. 8, at 6:30 p.m. at the state Division of Fish and Wildlife Nacote Creek Marine Law Enforcement Office (360 North New York Road, Mile Marker 51, Port Republic), there will be a hearing to consider amendments to the way menhaden are managed. Some of the provisions would actually be a step in the right direction, leaving more fish in the water for predators, and building on the positive momentum already under way. If you can get out to this hearing on Thursday night, please do so. For more information: www.menhadendefenders.org.

You may submit public comment in one or more of the following ways:

1. Attend public hearings held in your state or jurisdiction, if applicable.

2. Refer comments to your state’s members on the Atlantic Menhaden Board or Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Panel, if applicable.

3. Mail, fax, or email written comments to: Megan Ware Fishery Management Plan Coordinator Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 1050 North Highland Street, Suite 200A-N Arlington, Virginia 22201 Fax: (703) 842-0741 [email protected] (subject line: Menhaden PID)

Paul Eidman is a charter boat owner/operator and founder of Menhaden Defenders.