Sunday, August 7, 2016


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held its annual meeting last week, and it’s probably fair to say that setting the 2017 menhaden quota, was the hottest item on the agenda.

Menhaden management is not a new topic at ASMFC.  I’ve been working on it since I first got involved with ASMFC issues back in the mid-1990s, and folks that I know at the Coastal Conservation Association have worked on it longer than that. 

After that, things moved forward by fits and starts, in a highly politicized process that pitted anglers, conservationists and some small-scale commercial fishermen against large-scale commercial operators that can wipe out an entire menhaden school with just one set of their nets and are willing to commit substantial resources in order to swap current regulations for others that will maximize the industrial boats’ short-term kill.

 Scientific uncertainty as to the health of the stock hasn’t been helping the process. 

A stock assessment released in 2011 provided more questions than answers.  It found that there was little or no clear connection between the size of the menhaden stock and the number of young-of-the-year fish recruited into the population.  No population model seemed to provide a good fit for the species.  However, based on the information available, biologists determine that, although the stock was not overfished, overfishing was probably occurring.

An update to the stock assessment conducted in 2012 agreed with the conclusions of the previous assessment, but contained the comment that

“Overall, the retrospective pattern and a number of other issues cast considerable doubt on the accuracy of the estimates from this update stock assessment.”
Concerns about the quality of menhaden management led ASMFC to adopt an amendment to the management plan in late 2012.  That amendment adopted more biologically justifiable reference points for use in determining when the stock might be overfished or experiencing overfishing.

More importantly, the amendment recognized that menhaden were a very important forage fish, which were preyed upon by a host of fish, birds and marine mammals, and that as a result of such status, the reference points adopted in the amendment were only for interim use, until ecologically-based reference points, which would take account of the menhaden’s role in the coastal food web, could be developed.

ASMFC clearly stated that

“the Amendment is designed to minimize the chance of a population decline due to overfishing, reduce the risk of recruitment failure, reduce impacts to species which are ecologically dependent on Atlantic menhaden, and minimize adverse effects on participants in the fishery.”
In order to achieve such goals, the amendment reduced harvest by 20% until a new benchmark stock assessment, which hopefully provided a better picture of the health of the population, could be produced.  It would be an understatement to say that the big industrial harvesters were not happy.

Thus, when the new stock assessment was being prepared, the reduction industry made sure that they were a part of the process.  Their goal was to demonstrate that there were more fish in the population than biologists believed, in order to justify an increased harvest.

They did that by arguing that the samples used by scientists to determine the size of the population did not survey all age classes equally; that older, larger fish were being missed by the samplers.  As things turned out, there was evidence to support such claim, with four different sets of data capturing older fish that were not showing up in surveys of the menhaden fishery.  As a result, when the next stock assessment was completed in December 2014, it depicted a much healthier stock than did its predecessors.

Now, ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board is trying to figure out how to deal with that conclusion.

Last June, using data based on the most recent stock assessment, ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Technical Committee determined that there was no chance of overfishing occurring, even if harvest was increased by 40% in 2017.  Naturally, that energized the industrial fishing interests, with Jeff Kaelin, a representative of Lund’s Fisheries of Cape May, New Jersey, stating

“We’re focused on the science.  If the science supports an increase, we want to take it.”
But whether or not the science supports an increase depends very much on a person’s point of view.

If someone’s sole concern is whether harvest can be increased in 2017 without exceeding the overfishing threshold, the answer is certainly yes.  However, the same stock assessment that relied on a larger than previously believed number of large fish in the population to support such an increase also showed that recent recruitment hasn’t been all that good; it found that the number of small fish in the population was relatively low.

Thus, killing a lot of fish in 2017 could possibly lead to a problem a few years down the road.

And that’s when the only concern is the mere sustainability of menhaden harvest.  When we look to the real future of menhaden management, management based on biological and ecological reference points, the science does not clearly show that harvest can be safely increased.

When managing under such ecological reference points, harvest is not the first thing on scientists’ minds.  Instead, they initially have to determine the volume of menhaden required to sustain the species’ role in the coastal food web; that is, how much menhaden is needed to support fully-restored populations of striped bass, bluefish, king mackerel, red drum, weakfish and predatory fish, along with the ospreys, bald eagles, bottlenosed dolphins, humpbacked whales and various other birds and marine mammals that feed on menhaden on  a regular basis.

After that’s figured out, the appropriate amount of fish must be set aside to provide necessary ecosystem services, before harvest can even be considered.  Only after that is done should managers begin to look at how many menhaden may safely be harvested while still assuring that the population can not only sustain itself in the long-term, but also provide forage for all of the predators that benefit from an abundant menhaden population.

Since the needed science is still being developed, no one knows how many menhaden may be safely harvest under such criteria, but it’s a pretty good bet that the number will be a lot lower than current harvest.

Thus, conservation groups and anglers say, ASMFC shouldn’t be in a hurry to increase landings now.  As the Chesapeake Bay Foundation notes,

“Some advocates for the fishing industry are urging an increase in the quota, arguing that the [most recent] assessment shows a healthy population.  [Chesapeake Bay Foundation] and others are urging caution and more thorough analysis to ensure there are enough menhaden to serve as forage for other species in the coastal ecosystem.
“While the population does appear to be in better condition than previously thought, it is still a long way from being healthy and certainly a long way from fulfilling all the forage needs of striped bass and other predators.  The new assessment only shows the status of the menhaden population independent of other species and not its robustness within the food web.”

“An analysis conducted by scientists at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission finds that the coastwide Altantic menhaden quota can be substantially raised without impacting the sustainability of the species.”
The Coalition release notes that

“In 2015, the ASMFC’s Atlantic menhaden stock assessment found that the menhaden stock was healthy and sustainably managed, with the species neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.  It also found that fishing mortality is at an all-time low, and that menhaden fecundity (egg production) has been strong in recent years.”
However, the release fails to tell readers that the stock assessment also found there is no strong link between egg production and the size of any particular year class, or that relatively few young menhaden have been recruited into the population in recent years.  It also completely failed to address the menhaden’s role as an important forage fish, or the consideration that managers should give to the menhaden’s important place in the food web.

Thus, the two sides were arrayed for a confrontation at last week’s meeting. 

Although the meeting ran on for well over three hours, neither side could make any headway.  Conservationists repeatedly frustrated industry efforts to substantially increase their kill, while lacking the single key vote that would allow them to obtain a plurality of the vote needed to put a conservative menhaden quota in place. 

The only thing that the two sides could eventually agree on was to postpone the rest of the discussion to the Management Board’s October meeting.

That put the pro-conservation folks in a bad place.

“all of the reasonable people want a quota of some sort.”
He also indicated that there would be a lot of informal politicking between now and October to get enough votes behind one of the proposals, to adopt such a quota.

Still, folks such as Venasse have a stronger hand, for if ASMFC fails to adopt a 2017 menhaden quota, states with important menhaden fisheries will feel free to relax restrictions on harvest, something that, under any set of assumptions, could not be good for the stock.

So now everyone finds themselves caught up in a big game of political chicken, in which each side is trying to force the other to blink and offer a generous compromise. 

The industrial harvesters worry that conservation advocates will find a way to pick up just one more vote, and then be able to freeze landings at the current level.

The pro-conservation folks, on the other hand, must worry that no compromise will be reached, and that the lack of any coastwide quota will allow states such as Virginia and New Jersey will unleash their industrial fleets, and decimate the menhaden resource.  Or, in the alternative, they worry that the threat of such unfettered harvest will coerce one more state to enter into a compromise that will still up the kill by 20% or more.

It’s a bad place to put the fishery.

But it still could end will if managers changed their focus from dead fish to live ones, and took no action until folks figure out how many menhaden must remain in the ocean to assure a sustainable fishery not only for menhaden, but for everything that feeds on them as well.

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