Protein-packed menhaden are vital

cdollar@cdollaroutdoors.com

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An ardent conservationist, bluewater charter captain, professional fly guide and sport angler walk into a menhaden fisheries meeting, all hoping to convince the ultimate deciders that conserving this small, oily fish is critical. Each give logical and persuasive testimonies, albeit for different reasons and all leave the building feeling pretty good about their chances. When the talking is done and the decision has been made, they don’t feel satisfaction; rather they feel like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away. (Hey Millennials, look up the reference on your new $1,000 phone.)

Ok, you’re right, that’s a pretty crude description of a complex issue but it’s somewhat accurate in the long history of menhaden management, though to be fair important steps have been made in recent years. The latest, and arguably the most important chapter in this contentious debate is set to play out Nov. 13-14 when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meets in Baltimore, where they’ll take a final vote on Amendment 3, and likely set the 2018 commercial menhaden catch limit.

In the lead up to that meeting, public hearings are being held up and down the East Coast to glean input from anglers, commercial interests and conservationists. Maryland’s menhaden meeting is Sept. 18. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources will facilitate, with a 6 p.m. start at Anne Arundel Community College’s Cade Center for the Fine Arts, Room 219.

The draft proposal is not what I’d call an easy read, so here are my cliff notes: the ASMFC is considering revising its current menhaden plan to manage this important forage species for its role in the entire marine ecosystem, not just how many tons can be hauled in by purse seiners. This could mean implementing ecological reference points (ERPs), deciding how the menhaden catch is managed (e.g. who gets what percentage), as well as possible adjustments to the Chesapeake Bay fishery cap.

No doubt there’s a lot to unpack with Amendment 3, not made any easier by the language in which it’s spelled out. Then add the fact that development of specific ERPs is at least two years off. Fortunately, there’s solid research on other forage specie ERPs to guide the ASMFC toward interim measures for bunker.

Numerous conservation and sport fishing groups are marshaling their members and resources in support of a more conservative approach. The Coastal Conservation Association calls it “a watershed moment years in the making that will determine how one of the most important fish in the marine food chain will be managed in the future.” To be sure, count on commercial industry interests to push back, and hard, as they always do.

On the Chesapeake we call menhaden “bunker.” Others along the Atlantic coast have nicknamed them fat-backs, pogies or mossbacks. Whatever the moniker, they’re arguably the most important fish in the sea. Why? Because nearly every important game fish, as well as sea birds and whales, rely on these protein-packed forage fish to achieve maximum health and spawning potential.

Many of us know that Omega Protein is the only game in town in the Chesapeake Bay and along the mid-Atlantic when it comes to the “reduction” (aka industrial) menhaden fishery. Based in Virginia, their boats suck up about 80 percent of the coast-wise catch. Yes, 80 percent. Does that seem fair or reasonable to you? New Jersey is the only other state playing in the large-scale bait game, but its landings pale by comparison. Closer to home, it’s estimated 80,000 tons of menhaden are pulled from Virginia bay waters. And for what? Cosmetics, fish and animal feeds, and diet supplements. The remaining 20 percent is caught and sold as bait to sport fishermen and watermen.

For decades, menhaden have been managed like virtually every other marine species — as a single specie — rather than for its intricate role in the marine ecosystem. Single-species protocol is a dinosaur, obsolete, and well passed time to nail that coffin shut for good. That mindset is not only ineffective but has caused unnecessary conflict and confusion among user groups.

Over the years I haven’t been shy to suggest the ASMFC could be more aggressive when it comes to advancing conservation, like last summer when they failed to reach agreement on whether to hold the line on menhaden harvests. I also realize I have the benefit on not being in their position, and acknowledge the thorniness of such complicated fishery management decisions.

I don’t have any influence, but I do have an opinion, and I intend to share it with the commissioners, as I did in 2011 when I urged them to show courage and leadership by resisting the pressures from monied lobbyists who try to influence politicians for the sole goal of maximizing harvest of such a crucial forage fish.

I’ve been fortunate to derive immense enjoyment and make a living, such that it is, from the Chesapeake, and to a lesser extent the Atlantic coast. I owe the Chesapeake Bay far more than it owes me. Static menhaden management, or even backsliding to allow the riskier path of increasing the industrial coastal and bay haul, has the real potential to yield nothing but a bleak future for this vital forage, and by extension, quite possibly the myriad gamefish, birds and marine mammals that depend upon them. The good news is if given the chance menhaden can reproduce quickly, restocking waters toward a more balance ecosystem. However, the question still remains, as it has for years, will the ASMFC give them that opportunity?

OUTDOORS CALENDAR

Sept. 18: MSSA Broadneck/Magothy #10 Chapter Meeting, American Legion Post #175, 832 Manhattan Beach Road, Severna Park. Meeting begins 7:30 p.m. Contact Skip Zinck, skipzinck@comcast.net.

Sept. 18: Menhaden Public Hearing, hosted by Maryland DNR. 6 p.m. at Anne Arundel Community College, Cade Center for the Fine Arts, Room 219. 101 College Parkway, Arnold. Contact Lynn Fegley at (410) 260-8285.

Sept. 23: National Hunting and Fishing Day, hosted by Maryland DNR at Clear Spring, MD.

Sept. 30-Oct.1: CCA-Maryland “Red Trout Catch-and-Release Tournament.” Crisfield, Md. Register at ccamd.org.

Oct. 4: Free State Fly Fishers meeting. Capt. Chris Karwacki presents “Fly and Light Tackle Fishing the Flats of Tangier Sound.” 7:30 p.m. at Davidsonville Family Center, 3727 Queen Anne Bridge Road, Davidsonville.

Oct. 5-9: US Sailboat Show, Annapolis Harbor. Details on annapolisboatshows.com.

Oct. 5-7: Mid-Atlantic Surf Fishing Tournament, Ocean City. Details on oceancitysurfanglersmd.com.

Oct. 7: Potomac River Rockfish Tournament, hosted by Aqualand Marina and Campground, Newburg, Md. To register, call (301) 259-2222.

Oct. 6-7: Chesapeake Bay Kayak Anglers “Rocktober Tourney.” Camp Wright, Kent Island, MD. Benefits Make-A-Wish® Mid-Atlantic and CCA MD.

Oct. 7: “Rod & Reef Slam,” Anglers for Oyster Restoration, sponsored by CBF, CCA-MD, Maryland DNR. More information & registration at cbf.org/slam.

Oct. 7: Chesapeake Bay Kayak Association’s “Rocktoberfest” Tournament. Camp Wright, Kent Island. Benefits Make-A-Wish® Mid-Atlantic and CCA-MD.

Oct. 12-15: US Powerboat Show, Annapolis Harbor. Details on annapolisboatshows.com.

Oct. 21: Little Havana “Rocktober Cup.”

Nov. 1: Free State Fly Fishers meeting. Jesse L. Iliff, the South River RiverKeeper, will discuss the South River’s “Score Card.” 7:30 p.m. at Davidsonville Family Center, 3727 Queen Anne Bridge Road, Davidsonville.

Nov. 4: Fish For a Cure, Eastport Yacht Club, Annapolis. Money raised supports cancer programs at Anne Arundel Medical Center. Register at fishforacure.org.

Nov. 11: Rocksgiving Tournament, sponsored by Devils Backbone Brewing Company. Register at rocksgiving.com.

Nov. 17-19: MSSA “Fall Classic” rockfish tournament. Register at mssa.net.

Email outdoors news, photos and calendar listings to cdollar@cdollaroutdoors.com.

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