A year-end update on our successes, and our 2024 forecast for menhaden and herring conservation
With 2023 winding to a close, we wanted to look back at the top accomplishments toward forage fish conservation that the TRCP, our partners, and dedicated members along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts achieved together this year. As you probably know, forage fish like menhaden and herring are small but critically important species that play a central role in marine food webs, and provide an essential food source for some of the most economically important sportfish like striped bass, redfish, bluefish, and speckled trout. There remains a lot more work to be done in 2024 to expand forage fish protections in the U.S., but we are poised to hit the ground running next year with your continued support.
Our Top Three Forage Fish Successes of 2023:
1. We compelled the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Atlantic menhaden reduction industry and Virginia, to create a 1-mile no-fishing buffer along Chesapeake Bay shorelines and a ½-mile no-fishing buffer along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and to implement summer holiday fishing restrictions. While this MOU is not legally binding for the menhaden industry, its development is a direct result of our public push in Virginia to move menhaden reduction fishing out of the Bay. It also appears to have already reduced fish spills along the Eastern Shore this season, as no major spill events occurred in 2023, unlike the many spills we saw in 2022. While there are still no enforceable regulations on the industry to lower its 100-million-pound annual menhaden harvest in the Bay, we plan to keep the pressure on in 2024 to add legal teeth to this “gentlemen’s agreement.”
2. We successfully pushed for the adoption of a notice of intent (NOI) by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to implement regulations for the Gulf menhaden fishery, including a mandated 1-mile coastwide no-fishing buffer, 3-mile no-fishing buffers near popular beaches, and more stringent spill reporting requirements. Anglers have been sounding the alarm about the reduction industry’s impacts to sportfish populations and shorelines for years, all while accepting more and more limits on recreational fishing, including stricter size and creel limits on redfish and speckled trout. The Commission recognized that it’s time for the menhaden industry to participate in conservation as well. This NOI will hopefully be approved ahead of the 2024 season, and we will be following its progress along the way.
3. We advocated for the final development of a comprehensive study of incidental bycatch in the Gulf menhaden fishery, to be conducted during the 2024 season. The latest science shows that industrial menhaden harvest negatively impacts sportfish and other marine species by depleting the forage base and increasing bycatch incidents. A group of researchers will be monitoring the Gulf menhaden reduction industry in 2024 to determine the extent of the impacts of bycatch on Gulf sportfish and other menhaden predators. The results of this study should be published in 2025, which will greatly enhance our understanding of the second largest fishery by volume in the U.S.
Our Forage Fish Conservation Forecast for 2024:
Most of our work in the Atlantic will remain focused on the Chesapeake Bay, where we will continue to advocate for lowering the footprint of the menhaden reduction industry in Bay waters, to leave more fish available for iconic predator species like striped bass and osprey. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) recently published a proposal to study the ecology, fishery impacts, and economic importance of menhaden populations in Virginia. Hopefully, this work will receive the necessary funding from the General Assembly next year so we can finally get more answers to our decades-old question – what impact does menhaden reduction fishing really have on the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem?
If the existing NOI to expand menhaden fishing buffers along the Louisiana coast is approved in 2024, this should drastically lower fish spill events caused by the reduction industry next season – of which there were 18 total this season alone – as the industry will be forced to operate in deeper waters and obliged to quickly clean up dead fish. In addition to these new coastal protections, work continues to develop an ecosystem-based management framework for the Gulf menhaden fishery. Reference points to set a Gulf-wide harvest cap, which leaves enough forage fish in the water for sportfish and other predators, are just around the corner, and we will be advocating for their implementation to bring management of this fishery into the 21st century.
Nationally, menhaden are not the only forage fish in need of conservation. Many forage fish species are in trouble, including Atlantic herring, American shad, and river herring in the Northeast. Atlantic herring populations are dwindling at only 21% of their target biomass, while river herring and shad are both severely depleted throughout their range. In 2021, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) adopted a 12-mile buffer to keep the midwater trawl herring fishery away from key coastal habitat and to address bycatch and user conflict concerns. However, in 2022, because of a case brought by industrial herring harvesters, the courts struck down the buffer zone on a procedural matter.
This year, the TRCP and partners renewed the campaign to move the midwater trawl fishery offshore, away from critical herring spawning habitat and highly trafficked areas. Next year we will ramp up efforts as we continue our work to reinstitute effective fishing buffers along the New England coast. In combination, we are also beginning to advocate for the implementation of new protections for shad and river herring, by developing bycatch provisions within the Atlantic herring fishery to reduce inadvertent impacts on these depleted stocks.
Learn More About Forage Fish
Learn more about how forage fish drive sportfishing and underpin healthy marine ecosystems, and stay tuned for more updates about our forage fish conservation efforts in the coming year. As always, feel free to reach out to our team at any time.
Top Image Credit: Louisiana Sea Grant