Thursday, January 29, 2015


Just about two years ago, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board adopted Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden, which for the first time established biological reference points for managing the menhaden fishery.

It was a landmark action that was achieved only through a lot of hard work, with anglers and the broader fisheries conservation community working together. 

At the beginning, it was a struggle to bring menhaden management out of its version of the Dark Ages, when the initial Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden contemplated an Atlantic Menhaden Management Board and an Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee dominated by representatives of the menhaden reduction industry and officials from reduction industry states.

Once the first, most difficult battle to drive the foxes out of the henhouse was won, the fight became an incremental grind to improve the science and put menhaden management on a par with that of other species.

How long did it take?

Let’s put it this way.

The Coastal Conservation Association was one of the organizations at the forefront of the menhaden battle from the beginning.  When I joined CCA’s Board of Directors in 1996, and became Chairman of its Atlantic States Fisheries Committee a or so year later, CCA had already been involved in with the issue for about half a decade.  And when I resigned from CCA’s board in 2013, the fight to manage menhaden the right way was—IS—still going on.

Because Amendment 2 was a big step, but not the conclusion.

Amendment 2 set “interim” biological reference points that are, for practical purposes, based on the spawning potential of the stock.  But those reference points were derived from a stock assessment that seemed to have its share of problems, and everyone recognized that, with the interim reference points in place, it was time to produce a new benchmark stock assessment that would better guide menhaden management in the future.

That assessment process is now nearing completion. An Atlantic Menhaden Benchmark Stock Assessment has been completed, and has passed through the peer review process with only slight revisions.  As a result, it looks as if menhaden management is going to change once again.

Some folks might wonder why so much fuss is being made over a fish that nobody eats (at least intentionally), tends to die by the thousands in summer and stink up the shorelines where wealthy folks live and, to be honest, doesn’t smell all that good even when it’s still alive.

Bruce Franklin tried to answer that question in his book, The Most Important Fish in the Sea.  While his title is a bit of an overreach—the sea is pretty big, and in some of its corners, herring, pilchards, sardines, anchovies or other such critters might contend for the title—menhaden are certainly the most important fish along the U.S. East Coast, for the simple reason that, at some point in their lives, just about everything eats it.

When I was a kid—six or seven years old—I recall the flash of diminutive “snappers”, which are young of the year bluefish, tearing through schools of “peanut bunker”, which are young-of-the-year menhaden.  And just this past summer, I saw great humpback whales off western Long Island, swimming in as little as 40 feet of water to come up under big schools of menhaden with vast jaws agape.

And that pretty well tells us where menhaden management should be headed next.

The benchmark assessment suggests that the stock is in much better shape than we previously thought.  

But the next big step isn’t just to rebuild menhaden to securely sustainable levels.  We’re already about there now, with the stock assessment declaring that

“The menhaden stock is unlikely to experience unsustainable harvest rates or drop to depleted biomass levels in the short term under the current management plan.”

Larger, older fish are becoming a bigger part of the population, and the fishing mortality rate is the lowest in sixty years.

Yet menhaden management isn’t just about limiting harvest.  It’s also about providing an abundance of menhaden in the nearshore ocean, so that the whales, the sharks and the seals, along with fish of all kinds and a host of fish-eating birds, have a rich and dependable forage base.

Managers aren’t quite sure how to guarantee menhaden abundance—the link between stock size and recruitment is deemed “weak at best.”

Even so, the next great frontier for menhaden management is the development of “ecological based reference points” that don’t merely consider the size of the stock and the limits on harvest needed to provide a sustainable fishery, but rather the size of the stock needed to fulfill the menhaden’s most important role as forage fish of first resort.

Under such a management plan, the primary concern of fisheries managers won’t be how many menhaden may be safely netted, reduced into fish meal and shipped off to China, but rather how many menhaden will be needed to sustain a striped bass stock restored to target levels, with enough left over for the bluefish and the seals.

And yes, that sort of thinking is needed, because at October’s Striped Bass Management Board meeting, one of the arguments used by conservation’s opponents was that there was not enough forage in Chesapeake Bay—home of the last remaining menhaden reduction plant on the East Coast—to support a bigger striped bass population.  (Yet, curiously, those same watermen and their enablers who raised such objections were remarkably silent when a Pennsylvania commissioner asked whether they’d be willing to kill fewer menhaden to provide forage for bass.)

We have already learned how to restore fish stocks one at a time, although some folks—particularly up in New England and down in the Gulf of Mexico—seem dysfunctionally slow in absorbing those lessons.  Now, we need to learn how to use that knowledge to heal entire ecosystems, and make them function in ways that haven’t been seen in decades, or perhaps for close to a century.

We are getting our first taste of what such a healed system would look like off the coast of Long Island, as striped bass follow the menhaden schools and the slashing tails of thresher sharks churn the surface to foam less than a mile from the Fire Island Inlet sea buoy.

As we enter the new world of ecosystem management, menhaden are one of the fish that have the real potential to show us the way.

If they indeed fulfill that role, we will have maybe the best reason of all to call them, “the most important fish in the sea.”

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