By: David Sikorski, Executive Director

As any good angler knows, Atlantic menhaden are anything but a pisciverous predator.  Rather they are the foundation of the regional food web, and an abundant source of protein for many important gamefish like striped bass, bluefish, king mackerel and even some tuna species.

To date, they have been managed very much like most marine predators – on a single species basis without emphasis on the ecological role menhaden play in the ocean environment. At the November meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the option most preferred by the public was to manage menhaden on an ecological basis while maintaining its abundance at a level that is 75% of an unfished stock.  There were in excess of 160,000 public comments in favor of this goal.

Unfortunately, the ASMFC’s Menhaden Management Board (MMB) chose to bypass this novel approach to menhaden management, and instead simply increase the total allowable catch(TAC) and change the allocation amongst commercial harvesters in many member states of the commission.  The MMB did signal that they would work towards establishing Biological and Ecological Reference Points soon, a promise that is anything but reassuring to the tens of thousands who provided input or the millions of Atlantic coast anglers that rely on healthy and abundant fish stocks.

One thing the ASMFC MMB did choose to do was to lower the cap on the allowable harvest by the industrial fleet in the Chesapeake Bay.   By a vote of 14-2-2 (Virginia & New Jersey in opposition, USFWS and NOAA Fisheries abstaining), the MMB reduced that quota to 51,000 metric tons, a number just above the most recent 5 year average harvest in the Bay.  Predictably, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the state which has the lone industrial harvester of menhaden, appealed that decision, and has asked ASMFC to return the Bay cap to 87,216 metric tons, or approximately 40% of the coast-wide catch.

This “underperformance” of the harvesters fishing under the Bay cap might remind you of another underperforming number from the Chesapeake, the long-time level of juvenile menhaden abundance.  It is this index that should be the most concerning to anyone that wants to see the fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay flourish.

Unfortunately, this lack of the vitally important small “peanut” menhaden is a reality that has concerned anglers and scientists, as it relates to the overall adult population of the stock.  One would expect that with a higher population of adult menhaden, one would get more recruitment.  That is not the case with Atlantic menhaden, as years of higher adult population levels have not necessarily shown an increase in juvenile menhaden.  Yet the harvest of adults has gone on largely unabated.  Harvesters even claim that the big fish don’t matter to striped bass in the bay, an idea that flies in the face of what anglers experience throughout the year.

Fishermen know, when you find bait, you find predatory fish.  Yes, food is important to predators, but in single species management, this concept is often lost.  Studies haven’t definitively determined that localized depletion is occurring the Chesapeake Bay, and the industry says they do no harm because fish have tails and more bait will move in to fill any gaps when the factory ships fill up and head back to port.

But there are clear and strong signals that indicate localized depletion of menhaden does in fact occur in the Bay

  • All of the life history and ecological requirements for localized depletion exist, meaning that it is possible that menhaden removals (both natural and harvest) could exceed a level required to maintain its social/culture/ecological value
  • The research program undertaken to address this question produced a valuable body of knowledge, but was not significantly coordinated enough to actually answer the question because the mechanisms for this phenomenon is not understood – just because the science wasn’t designed to answer the question doesn’t mean it’s not happening
  • The demand on Bay menhaden populations doesn’t just come from fishing. Until we explicitly account for the ecological demand for menhaden (ERPs), it will be impossible to know if the fishing rate being imposed in the Bay is too high, so we should be precautionary

Any logical onlooker would think that we might consider when and where the existence of predators and prey overlap, and try to avoid large levels of fish food harvest in these places and at certain times. We know that overlap occurs in the Bay, and along the Atlantic Coast near the Bay.  Yet the stock is assessed on a coast-wide basis, with the vast majority of harvest occurring in the Chesapeake Bay, and up the coast of Maryland and Virginia.   This further points to the importance of a cap for the Bay. 

We’ve all seen striped bass with sores, heard concerns about lower recruitment as well as increases in natural mortality amongst juvenile fish in the Chesapeake.  Weakfish have been depleted for over a decade, summer flounder are facing recruitment challenges, and bluefish are beginning to decline.  Other forage species like shad and herring are also at historic lows.  Don’t you think the managers at ASMFC should consider these factors?

In a letter responding to Virginia’s appeal, ASMFC Leadership has stated that the policy board and MMB determine the next steps for the bay cap on February 8th in Alexandria.  Will Maryland’s managers take the lead to deny a roll back of the decrease in the cap made last November?  What about the rest of the coast who relies on the striped bass that the Chesapeake Bay produces each year? How about the states that rely on bluefish and summer flounder?  Yes, weakfish too, a depleted popular game fish species in a condition that no managers seem to have an answer for.

The time is now to weigh in on this issue yet again, so please contact your ASMFC representatives today.   We must continue to use caution as we all work towards ecosystem based management of menhaden and other forage species.  Taking any step backwards is an unacceptable, no matter the threats and reasoning in mangers minds. 

Please contact your ASMFC representative and ask them to stand firm.

Coastal Conservation Association Maryland