Meeting next week in Hampton Roads part of push to protect small fish and everything that eats them

By Dave Mayfield
The Virginian-Pilot
Sept 2017

Perhaps the biggest surprise about menhaden – given that they’re often called the most important fish in the ocean – is that, until five years ago, there was effectively no cap on how many of them could be harvested along the Atlantic coast.

Now the same agency that adopted that quota in hopes of saving the little, bony, oily fish is moving toward another big change.

This one that will take into the account the well being of the many animals – from ospreys to striped bass to humpback whales – that depend on menhaden.

 

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulates catches in state waters close to shore from Maine to Florida. Its new rules focusing on what it calls “the ecological role of menhaden” could help reshape the coastal environment for the better, said Chris Moore, a senior scientist for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“This really is the culmination of what a lot of people have wanted to see for a long time in managing this species,” Moore said.

Because Virginia is the center of the East Coast menhaden industry, the state also stands to be most affected by any changes. That’s why three of the 15 hearings on the the new management plan were scheduled in Virginia, including one in Hampton Roads: 6 p.m. Thursday at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission in downtown Newport News.

Environmental activists plan to be there, and so do fishermen – those who chase the sport fish that gobble menhaden and those who chase huge schools of menhaden for a living, including some of the more than 300 people who work for Omega Protein Corp. in Virginia.

Omega’s seven refrigerated vessels take in most of the menhaden netted along the Atlantic  about 137,000 metric tons last year  and haul them to the Chesapeake Bay town of Reedville. There, the fish are processed for everything from chicken feed to human dietary supplements. It’s the last “reduction” facility of its kind on the coast.

Ben Landry, public affairs director for the Houston-based Omega, said his company has no objection to a more holistic management plan but will resist any proposal to rein in fishing that isn’t supported by scientific evidence. Right now, he said, the commission’s own stock assessment is that “overfishing is not occurring.”

But that conclusion is based on “the status of menhaden independent of other species,” the commission points out in its draft of the new regulatory plan. Because of that, it says, it’s unclear whether the current quota is “protecting a large enough forage base to support predator populations.”

The commission is working on what it calls “reference points” for determining how many menhaden can be harvested without harming other species. It could take three years or more to develop them, and Landry said Omega believes that in the meantime the commission should “stay the course” and make no dramatic changes in harvest limits.

But environmentalists and recreational fishermen largely favor phasing in the new approach now, using interim data, even if it means the data show that sharp cutbacks in commercial catches are needed. They’re hoping the commission will act to do so at its meeting in November.

Landry said the strictest of the optional targets for menhaden abundance outlined by the commission would dramatically affect Omega, whose catches last year accounted for more than two-thirds of the coastwide menhaden quota of 200,000 metric tons. The rest of the quota was caught by commercial fishermen who sell their menhaden as bait for everything from bluefish to lobsters.

New Jersey is the leading state in the bait market, with Virginia right behind it.

Amendment 3, which is what the commission calls its new management plan, also includes numerous options for reallocating the menhaden quota. Under one scenario, each of the 13 other states along the coast would get no less than 2 percent. That would dramatically knock down Virginia’s share, Landry said.

“Omega Protein has made 100 years of investment in this fishery, and we think it’d be unfair for a state to suddenly jump in and say, ‘We want to grow our fishery,’ ” he said.

Some other states, however, have complained that the current quota system hasn’t kept up with menhaden population trends – the fish have grown much more abundant off New York, Massachusetts and Maine in recent years, for example. Scientists have attributed a wave of humpback whale sightings in New York harbor this year to plentiful menhaden.

Moore said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is particularly interested in maintaining and even tightening down a cap on menhaden harvests west of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

It was the only cap in place before the coastwide quota was adopted in 2012, and Moore said the limit is important because of the bay’s role as a key nursery for menhaden. He said populations of young menhaden in the bay haven’t recovered as they have elsewhere along the Atlantic.

Moore said he hopes the commission’s move toward an ecosystem-based approach to menhaden management will be followed by similar initiatives for other species.

He also pointed out that the commission isn’t venturing out alone. Last year, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which regulates federal waters farther offshore, from New York to North Carolina, approved a “forage species” protection plan. It includes more than 50 species of critters, from sand lances to warty bobtail squids.

Menhaden weren’t addressed in that plan.