Sunday, July 27, 2014


It was maybe 40 years ago. 

The bluefish had come in early that spring, and were tearing apart the big schools of menhaden (we called them “bunker”) that bunched up in the harbors.  I had been catching more than my share, and offered to take a local tackle shop owner out for a taste of the action. 

We met at the dock before dawn, surrounded by the charcoal gray murk of a pea soup fog.  I’ve always felt comfortable running in fog, so getting to the fishing grounds wasn’t much of a problem, but once there, finding the fish became a bit of a challenge. 

I usually found the blues by watching for menhaden exploding out of the water; with visibility down to around 30 feet, that became a little tough to do.  Instead, I shut down the engine and listened.

If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that I was approaching a waterfall, or maybe the churning rapids of a whitewater river; someone who had never seen bluefish rip into a bunker school would find it hard to believe that mere fish could be responsible for the continual splashing roar that echoed through the fog. 

In minutes, we were among them, and had maybe an hour and a half of the fastest kind of action with bluefish averaging 12 or 14 pounds, and topping out around 16.  Then we had to quit, so my morning's companion could open his shop, where he had new stories to tell—more or less continuously—for the next week or so.

Such intense feeding frenzies continued for another decade or so, then began to slow down.  There were a lot of reasons why they slowed down, but a lack of menhaden was certainly one of them.

Recently, thanks to anglers and other marine conservationists coming together for a common cause, and thanks to some cooperation at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the health of our menhaden population is beginning to improve. 

I could see graphic testimony of that off Long Island this June, when abundant schools of menhaden tolled in a bunch of big striped bass, which in turn attracted masses of anglers so large that I had difficulty weaving my boat through the fleet in order to make my appointment with bigger critters farther offshore.

The cause and effect is, and always was, pretty clear:  Abundant menhaden attract an abundance of gamefish, which in turn attract an abundance of anglers who, finding themselves catching fish, make more trips and spend more money on boats, fuel and tackle.

It seems like a win-win for everyone—even for the menhaden, since their key role as forage fish means that anglers, and others, will go out of their way to help the population recover, and to keep it healthy once it does.

And the menhaden does need protection, for there are folks out there who are always trying to find ways to kill as many fish as they can.  It seems that the menhaden’s increasing abundance doesn’t impress those folks at all…

“The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Peter Baker recently declared the new catch limits on Atlantic menhaden a “success” based on the results of the last year’s menhaden harvest…But such a declaration depends on a very limited definition of “success.”  In the year since these cuts went into effect, issues of transparency, equity and disparities in enforcement persist…
“Viewed from this perspective, the 2013 Atlantic menhaden fishing season is unfortunately not one that can clearly be labeled a “success.”  Along the coast, a number of troubling scenarios highlight inequities in harvest cut enforcement that merit serious consideration by fisheries managers.  To ignore these problems threatens not only the species’ sustainable management, but also the legitimacy of those tasked with upholding these commercial harvest cuts.”
Those two paragraphs marked the beginning and end of Landry’s essay; in between were a collection of—let’s be kind—trivial and somewhat self-serving statements that make a futile attempt to blemish what was really a significant and long awaited conservation victory.

I’ll go back and address what Landry wrote between his opening and ending paragraphs later.

For now, it may be more worthwhile to discuss what happened between the day that I took that shopowner out for bluefish 40 years ago and last month, when the striped bass blitzed the menhaden schools off Fire Island.  It will certainly put Landry’s comments in the proper context.

It’s all about menhaden abundance which, according to ASMFC’s 2012 Menhaden Stock Assessment Update, increased throughout the 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s.   However, according to the “Beaufort Assessment Model” (named after the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Beaufort laboratory, which has done considerable menhaden research), it was all downhill after that, with the biomass of the population bottoming out in 2011.

The long slide didn’t go unnoticed.  Dick Brame, Atlantic States Fisheries Coordinator for the Coastal Conservation Association, once told me that he started getting involved with menhaden management in the early 1990s, when some folks in the South Atlantic states started complaining that they were having trouble getting enough menhaden to use as king mackerel bait.  

However, the effort to try to conserve menhaden didn’t get off the ground until much later, because of a big problem at ASMFC—and that was the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board itself.

Over the years, the structure of fishery management boards at ASMFC evolved, until they finally took the shape they have today—every state that declared an interest in a species has the right to sit on that species’ management board.  Three members from each interested state, including the state’s salt water fisheries director, a governor’s appointee and a legislative appointee, would have seats on the board, with each state casting a single vote representing the majority view of its caucus. 

Back in the ‘90s, every one of ASMFC’s species management boards, except one, was structured that way. 

That sole exception was Atlantic menhaden.

ASMFC completed the inaugural Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden in 1981, and assured that the foxes would have control of the henhouse by creating an Atlantic Menhaden Management Board composed of six state representatives, six representatives of the menhaden fishing industry and one representative from NMFS.  Such management board would be advised by an Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Board, composed of state, industry and NMFS representation, as well as a Atlantic Menhaden Implementation Subcommittee, made up of three state fisheries managers and three industry representatives.

With the menhaden industry having parity with state scientists on every menhaden management body, perhaps it’s not surprising that the introduction of such first menhaden management plan contained the lines

“The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board has given due consideration to the magnitude of the menhaden resources, the useful products derived therefrom, and the current diverse management authorities vested in the several states from Maine to Florida in development of this management plan.”
That first plan also gave lip service to the menhaden’s importance as a forage fish, but given the makeup of the various boards, that clearly was not the managers’ first priority.

That was made pretty clear by the management plan’s “Long-Term Objective,” which was to

“Achieve the greatest continuing yield from each area by determining the age at which menhaden should be harvested and eliminating other restrictions which do not contribute to the management goal [emphasis added].”
However, states have a responsibility to their citizens, and not merely to the menhaden industry.  As a result, a number of jurisdictions began placing restrictions on the commercial menhaden fishery, which included substantial closed areas in a number of states.  That didn’t make the industry happy, so in 1986, ASMFC issued a supplement to its Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan which contained the admonition

“Laws and regulations existing in 1981-82 are still in place and ‘new’ ones have been enacted which conflict with the long-term objective…and do not contribute to the ASMFC coastwide management plan for Atlantic menhaden.
“The major state actions which go beyond the 1981 FMP…are area closures in New York, New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina.  These closures, in conjunction with national and international economic factors, have seriously affected the viability of the Atlantic menhaden fishery in spite of improved stock conditions.  Since 1981, plants have closed permanently in New Jersey and North Carolina.  Another North Carolina plant did not fish during Fall, 1985.  One of the two Virginia companies has stated that it may not participate in the Atlantic fishery in 1986…
“We strongly recommend that participating states take the steps necessary to assure that their regulations or laws are consistent with the management plan.  We ask that the fishery directors…provide the [Atlantic Menhaden Management Board] with a listing of the existing regulations and laws pertaining to Atlantic menhaden…along with a statement of the rationale for each action…Also, we recommend that each state director refer any pending or future regulation or statute (bill) which bears upon the Atlantic menhaden fishery to the [Atlantic Menhaden management board] for comment.  This procedure would…try to reduce or eliminate those existing regulations and statutes which are not consistent with the plan [to achieve the greatest continuing yield from each area][emphasis added].”
Just in case somebody didn’t get the point, the Supplement also included a request for proposals to study “the socio-economic aspects of the Atlantic menhaden fishery, and analysis of the socio-economic impacts of selected public and private-sector management decisions and alternatives.”

Yes, the foxes get pretty testy when someone tries to take their nice, fat chickens away…

However, in 2001, folks decided that it was time to give those chickens a break.  At that time, I was a volunteer with the Coastal Conservation Association, had the privilege of working with Dick Brame and a number of others who decided to bring the foxes under control, and had the pleasure of watching the process unroll.

Folks had figured out that an Atlantic menhaden management board made up of five state fisheries directors, five menhaden fishing industry representatives, a representative from NMFS and a representative of the National Fish Meal and Oil Association—even if augmented by one legislative and one governor’s appointee, along with two “public representatives”—probably wasn’t going to put the health of the menhaden resource and its importance as a forage fish at the top of its list.

Folks had also figured out that the Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee, which contained a hefty percentage of menhaden fishing industry representatives, might not be completely unbiased when it came to deciding on the health of the stock and the quantity of fish that such menhaden fishing industry would be able to harvest in any given year.

So they prevailed upon ASMFC to adopt Amendment 1 to the Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan, which changed the management structure so that menhaden are now managed like any other fish.

Getting from there to the point that upset Mr. Landry was, as they say, just a matter of history, although history doesn’t quite record all of the time and effort put in by a lot of unsung heroes to get to where we are today.

The fact that it took eleven years to produce Amendment 2 to the Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan, the first menhaden plan with rigorous, science-based reference points governing harvest, gives a hint of how much work it took to get there.

But only a hint.

Amendment 2 required the coastwide menhaden harvest to be reduced by 20%, and divvied up the harvest among the several states.  Virginia, where Omega Protein—Mr. Landry’s employer—has its plant, was allocated 85.32% of a 170,800 metric ton harvest. 

That’s 320,598,432 pounds.

So it’s pretty clear why Mr. Landry was complaining about “inequities in harvest cut enforcement” that “threatens not only the species’ sustainable management, but also the legitimacy of those tasked with upholding these commercial harvest cuts” after New York allowed its menhaden fishermen to go about one million pounds over quota (which they really didn’t do, as New York was given unused quota by Massachusetts and North Carolina to account for the difference).  

I mean, that’s one million pounds, nearly 0.35%--that’s thirty-five hundredths of one percent—of the amount of menhaden caught by Omega—or, to put it another way, maybe less than the amount that probably leaks out of their nets and gets lost in the transfer process over the course of a season
The Maryland situation involves a few more fish—who knows, maybe a whole one percent of what Omega Protein kills every year.

If that small amount “threatens…the species’ sustainable management,” then what does the 286 million pounds killed by Omega do?

And if those small complaints are the worst thing that Mr. Landry can say about menhaden management, then it’s time that he admits the truth of what the rest of us have been saying for a very long time.

Amendment 2 to the management plan was a big step forward.

In fact, Peter Baker was right.

It was a “success.”

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