Sunday, May 10, 2015
TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK FOR MENHADEN
Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s’ Atlantic Menhaden Management Board took actions that will affect menhaden harvest and the management of the stock in this year and beyond.
After the Management Board meeting, everyone, on all sides of the issue, began to spin the outcome in an effort to shape public opinion and cast the meeting’s results in the best possible light. A few of the comments came a lot closer to the truth than others, but if you make a real effort to see past the smoke and mirrors, you can get a pretty good idea of where folks are trying to go with this important forage species.
The best way to start is probably to see how ASMFC described its own actions. As part of a meeting week summary that described the actions taken,and motions made by members of the Management Board, there was an ASMFC press release which stated
“The Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board approved a total allowable catch (TAC) for the 2015 and 2016 fishing seasons at 187,880 mt per year, a 10% increase from the 2014 TAC. The increase responds to the positive findings of the 2015 Atlantic menhaden benchmark assessment which indicates the resource is not overfished nor experiencing overfishing relative to the current biological reference points…The Board also committed to moving forward with the development of an amendment to establish ecological based reference points that reflect Atlantic menhaden’s role as a forage species. The amendment will also consider changes to the current state-by-state allocation scheme…”
It was an artfully done press release, which at the same time managed to accurately set forth everything that happened at the meeting, strike a very upbeat tone and yet still touch on the controversy that underlies menhaden management today—whether the fish should be managed on a single-species basis through the use of menhaden-specific biological reference points, with sustainable harvest the primary criterion, or whether it should be managed in a way that emphasizes its role as a forage species for other valuable food and recreational species by means of “ecological based reference points.”
Exactly where an organization stood on the single-species management vs. ecological based reference points debate determined how each such organization was going to spin the outcome of the meeting.
Larger-scale bait harvesters, as well as the reduction fleet, were on the single-species side of the debate, and emphasized the fact that the stock appeared to be neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.
The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, which describes itself as
“a collective of fishermen, related industries and supporting businesses [that is] [c]omprised of over 30 businesses alont the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts,”put out a press release on May 5th entitled “ASMFC’s Menhaden Quota Increase Signals Step in Right Direction”, which declares that
“…the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adhered to the best available science on Atlantic menhaden, and took a step in the right direction in deciding to increase the allowable coastwide harvest on the commercially valuable species by 10 percent. Though still only half of the 20 percent harvest cut imposed on the fishery in 2012, today’s decision signals a promising move toward responsible management of the species in accordance with the best available science.
“…The 2015 Atlantic Menhaden Benchmark Assessment, released earlier this year, found that menhaden are not overfished, and have not been for decades. Its findings all point to a healthy fishery: there are large numbers of adult menhaden that previous assessments assumed to not exist, levels of fecundity have risen to near-record highs, and fishing mortality has plummeted to record lows.”
Of course, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition release left out a few key points, such as the fact that while adult menhaden are relatively abundant, juvenile menhaden are not, leaving open the question of where the next generation of adults is going to come from.
And it doesn’t mention ecological based reference points at all.
In fact, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition had previously issued statements that, intentionally or not, could easily have misled the public with respect to that issue. In a May 1 press release entitled, in a pot-calling-the-kettle-black kind of way, “Menhaden Fisheries Coalition Analysis: Environmental NGOs Miss the Mark, Misinform on Atlantic Menhaden Assessment”, the Coalition said
“criticisms that the 2015 assessment does not take an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management are incomplete and inaccurate. It notes that, contrary to assertions from prominent environmental groups, who claim that the ASMFC makes no consideration in its assessment for the needs of predators, the 2015 menhaden assessment does include estimates of natural and predation mortality...”
No one can know for certain what the Coalition was thinking when it made that statement, but it is difficult to believe that there wasn't some intent to mislead those of the public who read it, for the nutritional needs of menhaden’s predators are very different from “natural mortality,” which merely represents the number of menhaden that such predators are able to feed on today.
There is nothing in the definition of “natural mortality,” nor of the discussion of natural mortality in the 2015 menhaden stock assessment, which assumes that the number of menhaden eaten by predators is equal—or anywhere close—to the number of menhaden required to maintain a healthy predator population.
But if you make money by killing menhaden, leaving more of them in the water to feed striped bass and seals has an adverse impact on your bottom line, so it’s not something that you want managers thinking about.
On the other hand, conservation groups do think of things other than turning dead fish into money, so their comments took a very different tone. Ken Hinman, President of Wild Oceans, said
“We are very disappointed in the commission for not maintaining current catch levels. In the big picture, however, the modest increase in quota for two years is less important than the Board finally committing to a definite process and timeline for adopting ecological reference points. I view the catch increase as the final act under the old rules, one last nod to the past before we step into the future, where we will take care of the needs of the menhaden’s predators first, before we allocate to the fishery. That future is closer now than ever before.”
Only time will tell whether Hinman is being prophetic or too optimistic when he says that we’re about to step into a future where menhaden’s ecological role is given precedence over menhaden harvest. However, it’s clear that people are no longer willing to completely ignore that role.
Early in the Management Board meeting, Capt. Adam Nowalsky, proxy for New Jersey’s legislative appointee, put a motion on the table to increase the menhaden quota by 10% not just once, but no less than three times, in 2015, 2016 and 2017. However, such motion had very little support, and never came up for a vote.
Thus, it’s pretty clear that some progress is being made with menhaden management. The decision to move forward with a new amendment to the management plan, which will examine—but not necessarily adopt—ecological based reference points is a real watershed, sending ASMFC down a new and badly needed road that it has never explored before. And re-examining allocations, to perhaps provide more fish for smaller operators and less to industrial fishing operations, could boost the economic value of the resource without causing any additional harm to the stock.
At the same time, the decision to increase harvest by 10% reflects ASMFC’s comfort with traditional single-species management, and suggests that adoption of an ecosystem-based approach is far from assured.
So, in the end, what came out of the meeting was a mixed bag, but there appears to be more good than bad.
We now have good reason to hope that, despite the modestly increased quota, menhaden managers may finally be taking the steps needed to create a true ecosystem-based management plan.