New menhaden study renews debate on catch limits

Fish fight: New study renews debate over catch limits on menhaden.

Menhaden may or may not be the most important fish in the sea, but the oily little fish is again generating a pretty big debate about how many of them can be caught along the Atlantic coast and still leave enough behind for other fish and wildlife to eat.

A little more than two years after authorities clamped down on harvests of Atlantic menhaden, prompting protests from Maryland watermen and other commercial fishermen, a new analysis by scientists finds they are in better shape — better, in fact, than believed when the catch was cut back.

The most heavily harvested fish on the East Coast, menhaden are caught for processing into animal feed and health supplements, and for use as bait in catching other fish, including crabs and lobsters. But menhaden also happen to be a prime food source for many other fish and birds, including striped bass, or rockfish. 

More than three-fourths of the coastwide catch is netted by Omega Protein's fishing fleet, operating out of Reedville, Va. The company and its Virginia supporters had protested the earlier catch restrictions, as had watermen. 

The new study concludes that Atlantic menhaden are "not overfished" and that "overfishing is not occurring" — the reverse of what scientists had found several years ago, prompting the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to order a 20 percent reduction in the commercial harvest.

The commission, which regulates fishing along the East Coast, is set to review the new findings when it meets Tuesday in Alexandria, Va.

Commercial fishing interests contend this fresh analysis shows there was no need to cut the menhaden harvest before, that fishing pressure cannot be blamed for poor reproduction, and that it's time now to ease the catch limits. The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, an industry group, says "it is clear that the menhaden fishery is sustainably managed, and that responsible increases in menhaden quotas are supported by this new science." 

But conservationists and anglers disagree. Peter Baker, Northeast fisheries director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that the new study found the overall "biomass," or weight, of menhaden was greater, apparently the result of finding more large fish in northern waters than previously believed to be there. But the actual number of fish "remains well below historic levels," Baker added.

Those concerns aside, Ken Hinman, president of Wild Oceans, an anglers' group, said the new analysis only looked at whether there were enough menhaden to sustain commercial harvests, not whether there were enough to feed all the other fish that forage on them. The scientists said more work is needed to determine harvest limits that will ensure enough menhaden remain behind to sustainably feed the other fish in the sea.

William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said menhaden are key to the health of Maryland's state fish, the striped bass, also known as rockfish.

Menhaden reproduction in the bay has been poor for the last 20 years, Goldsborough said, so there've been fewer young little fish available to feed striped bass in the bay. The bay's rockfish are dying off at higher than normal rates because of a bacterial infection, Goldsborough said, which has been linked to poor nutrition.

"I think it's certainly premature, if not disingenuous, to be saying we didn’t need to do what we did before," said Goldsborough, a member of Maryland's delegation to the fisheries commission. "The best available science at the time and the urgent need to provide forage for striped bass and other predators compelled us to do what we did."

The commission now needs to follow through by setting new standards for fish abundance based on their ecological value, he said. Once that's done, he said, "We may find we didn’t do enough last time."

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