The menhaden reduction fishing industry is pointing to the Atlantic-wide assessment to push back on angler advocacy for menhaden and sportfish in the Bay—here’s our response
At the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting on August 3, the stock assessment for Atlantic menhaden showed that the stock is not overfished, nor is overfishing occurring. Omega Protein, the foreign-owned company that operates all menhaden reduction fishing vessels in the Atlantic, pointed to the assessment as evidence that their practices aren’t harming fisheries. Their basic message to angling groups that are pushing to move reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay? Back off.
But the effects of the localized harvest of more than 112 million pounds of menhaden annually from the Bay are not included in this latest stock assessment. “Overfished” is a coastwide designation given for the status of the fishery from Maine to Florida—it does not make distinctions for unique places like the Chesapeake Bay.
It is true that the implementation of ecological reference points into the ASMFC’s menhaden management model in 2020 was a crucial step for this forage fish that serves as the base of the marine food web. But the latest stock assessment update was a single-species assessment, not an ecological reference points assessment. This means that the information used does not include the current impacts of overfishing other forage fish, like Atlantic herring, which would likely alter the impacts of the menhaden fishery on predators like striped bass and bluefish.
The ERP assessment from 2020 used multiple predator and prey species to model the ecosystem, including bluefish, weakfish, spiny dogfish, and Atlantic herring. But for the assessment release this month, these species “were assumed to be fished at 2017 levels,” according to the ASMFC, meaning that the ecosystem-level data is five years behind.
Meanwhile, there are no scientific data specific to the Bay that assess the impacts of the reduction fishery on predator species like striped bass, red drum, and osprey. It should not be up to the ASMFC or the public to prove that the menhaden reduction fishery is causing harm to the Bay. It should be up to Omega Protein to prove to the public that this resource is being equitably harvested, leaving enough forage in the water to maintain the ecosystem and the regional economies that depend on it.
According to the scientists who created the ERP model, it is based on the tradeoff between menhaden harvest and striped bass biomass. And this type of tradeoff relationship is central to any forage fish management system. Moving menhaden reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay would make more menhaden available to juvenile and adult striped bass within the Bay—the primary nursery ground for 70 to 90 percent of the Atlantic coastwide population—and would increase stock biomass to sustainable levels.
The 2018 striped bass stock assessment showed that the stock was overfished and overfishing was occurring. While the TRCP and our partners supported an 18-percent striped bass harvest reduction in 2020, it is expected that this October’s updated stock assessment will still show that striped bass are overfished.
We know that 30 percent of the striped bass diet is composed of menhaden and the Bay accounts for 70 to 90 percent of the Atlantic striped bass stock. Why is it that we still allow the menhaden reduction fishery to harvest hundreds of millions of menhaden that serve as critical forage for our nation’s most iconic saltwater gamefish?
Every other East Coast state except Virginia has seen the value of leaving more menhaden in the water to support coastal ecosystems. All but Virginia have acted in favor of their coastal economies and tourism by abolishing the practice of menhaden reduction fishing in state waters.
Our coalition of concerned anglers, manufacturers, local businesses, and conservationists is dedicated to commonsense fisheries management, which considers the needs of the ecosystem as well as ALL the user groups that enjoy and utilize it. If you, too, want to see the Chesapeake Bay return to the fishery it once was, join us by signing this petition to move menhaden reduction fishing out of the Bay, so that predators like striped bass can begin to rebuild.
Photo by Gaelin Rosenwaks. Follow her on Instagram @gaelingoexplore.