- The menhaden reduction industry is allowed to harvest menhaden in Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay and in state waters off the coast of North Carolina and in federal waters (the EEZ).
- In Virginia, it is the only species of fish that is managed directly by the state legislature. Every other species is managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
- A single reduction plant, owned by Omega Protein in Reedville, Virginia, processes menhaden harvested from the Atlantic Ocean and from the Virginia waters of Chesapeake Bay, the primary nursery ground for striped bass on the East Coast. It employs roughly 200 people and is a significant employer in an economically under-developed area of the state.
- All attempts to reduce commercial harvest or move management of menhaden out of the Virginia legislature have failed. Omega Protein is a formidable force in state politics. Compounding the issue, menhaden are assessed coast-wide, and on that basis have been deemed “healthy.” Because of that, until recently there has been no scientific evidence suggesting harvest should be curtailed.
- There is no coast-wide limit on the amount of menhaden that can be removed from the population by the fishery.
- Concerns over the localized depletion of menhaden in Chesapeake Bay due to commercial harvest intensified in the early 2000s as striped bass in the Bay began to succumb in greater numbers to mycobacteriosis infections. Theories developed linking the shrinking forage base of menhaden to skinny/malnourished striped bass, thereby leaving them more susceptible to Myco infections. The link has not been conclusively proven.
- In 2005, an effort was made to cap the commercial harvest of menhaden while research was conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to determine current numbers of menhaden in the Bay versus the amount of menhaden that should be in the Bay for it to fully fulfill its role as a forage species for a whole host of game fish, including striped bass, bluefish, sharks, swordfish, cod, tuna, bonito, ospreys, loons and dolphin. CCA fully supported the cap and the research program.
- After a lengthy battle, in 2006 the industrial harvest was capped at the average of the previous five years’ harvest to allow for research to be conducted using LIDAR, a water-penetrating radar that researchers hoped would allow them to count menhaden from airplanes. The harvest cap was set for five years. It was extended for another three years in 2010 although it has had little effect on the fishery.
- LIDAR was ultimately determined to be ineffective because of the density and depth of menhaden schools. Alternative research methods have yet to be implemented or even fully developed.
- Today, estimates of menhaden are at the lowest level ever recorded, in a time series which extends back more than 50 years. Such abundance has declined steadily since the early 1980s. Yet under the current management regime no action is required to address the decline.
- The exploitation rate on adult fish (annual removals) is 65 percent and higher, giving little chance of adult menhaden spawning more than once.
- Recruitment of young menhaden to the population has been low for 20 years. The scarcity of juveniles may be affecting menhaden’s historical role as a major food source for fish and other predators.
- In recent bay-wide surveys, menhaden account for only 8 percent of the striped bass’ diet. Historically, young menhaden comprised 70-80 percent of the diet of adult bass.
- Striped bass in Chesapeake Bay have now been documented with reduced weight-to-length ratios (i.e., skinny fish).
- Resident Chesapeake stripers have been found to be infected with myco in up to 70 percent of fish sampled. Poor nutrition has been found to increase the severity of the myco infections.
- There is strong evidence that natural mortality has increased for striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay. Mortality is twice as high in bass infected with myco. Chesapeake stripers have historically accounted for about 75 percent of the striped bass caught coastwide
- In a significant development, the 2010 menhaden stock assessment revealed an historical pattern of overfishing (32 out of 54 years) and concluded that overfishing is occurring in the final year of the analysis (2008). The assessment report is being adjusted to reflect the new finding and will be presented to the Menhaden Board of the ASMFC at its next meeting in March 2011.
- The assessment/peer review found that the stock is at 5 – 10 percent of the spawning potential of an unfished stock. The review declared this level too low.
- The peer review recommended developing new reference points that better protect the stock since under the current management regime action is still not required to address the decline.
- Through November 1, 2010, NMFS data indicates Atlantic menhaden harvest for reduction will be 22.3 percent above last five years average. Not known is the bait harvest for 2010 which would include the additional harvest by New England boats fishing in New Jersey/New York waters, which may be substantial. This is taking place when stocks are already at historic low levels.
- The Menhaden Board has directed its Technical Committee and staff to draft an addendum to the menhaden fishery management plan that would present a range of possible reference points based on Percent Maximum Spawning Potential. The draft addendum is expected for consideration at the March 2011 meeting for the purpose of sending it out for public comment. Under this schedule the Board would be expected to finalize and adopt the addendum at its August meeting.
- The Menhaden Board also directed the Technical Committee and the Multi-Species Technical Committee to develop ecologically based reference points that account for predation, looking at reference points used for other important forage fish. The earliest that these reference points are expected to be presented to the Board is the August 2011 meeting. The Board will be briefed on progress at the March meeting.
- In early 2011, CCA Virginia, working with an extensive coalition, filed six bills in the Virginia Legislature all aimed to address menhaden harvest from different angles. One proposed to move management of the species to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and another proposed a tax on every ton of menhaden to pay for research. Every one of the bills was dead within weeks.
- The prospects for meaningful legislative action in Virginia to address the menhaden issue are not promising.
- Nonetheless, the science is slowly boxing the menhaden industry into a corner. Following the evidence out to a logical conclusion, the ASMFC should eventually be forced to take action to reduce commercial harvest. However, that is not a certainty.
- Therefore, CCA needs to develop a regional approach to moving the ASMFC to take action. The coordinated campaign should be built to address what we see as a crisis not just for menhaden in the Chesapeake, but for striped bass and other game fish that are important to anglers up and down the East Coast.
- PROPOSED CCA ACTION STEP – Through its Atlantic States Fisheries Committee, CCA will coordinate a campaign in its state chapters to solicit letters from each state’s Congressional delegation to that state’s representatives on the ASMFC urging them to take appropriate steps to safeguard the health of striped bass and other sport fish through proper management of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay. CCA will develop briefing materials and sample letters for state’s to present to their Congressmen based on the following points:
§ CCA believes menhaden should be managed differently, as yield cannot be the only consideration. Menhaden are a keystone prey species for many important Atlantic finfish species, and must be managed in a manner that permits them to fulfill their role as a forage species, and not merely in a way that maximizes harvest.
§ The issue is bigger than Virginia. The continued harvest of menhaden in Chesapeake Bay presents a threat to public marine resources cherished by the entire East Coast.
§ We will urge Congressmen to pressure the ASMFC Menhaden Board to adopt the Percent Maximum Spawning Potential addendum for public hearings at its March meeting and choose a conservative target (at least 20 percent MSP) for adoption at its August meeting. Adoption of controls on the fishery in response to the assessment and peer review must be put in place in time for the 2012 fishing season.
§ The ASMFC should take a simple, common sense approach to menhaden management and manage it not as a single industrial species, but as the linchpin species to healthy marine resources along the entire East Coast. Decreasing fishing mortality by industrial fishing is the best measure available to managers to achieve this goal.