Menhaden restrictions: The one that didn't get away

Two important decisions emerged from the recent meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that should have a positive impact on the Chesapeake Bay's striped bass (rockfish) industry. The first was a decision not to restrict the harvest of striped bass, the other to significantly curb the Atlantic menhaden catch.

How could a decision to leave alone rockfish, a species highly prized by commercial fishermen and recreational anglers alike, while restricting the harvest of the lowly menhaden, an oily little fish that no self-respecting hook-and-line fisherman would use for anything other than bait, be a win for conservationists and the fishing industry?

It's a lesson of the food chain — and a victory for science over politics and short-sighted commerce. The decision not to reduce the striped bass catch by 50 percent in 2012 was voted down chiefly because striped bass landings are still near record-highs and recruitment in the Chesapeake Bay this year was robust as well — the fourth highest number of baby fish on record.

Meanwhile, menhaden stocks are thought to be at all-time lows. Studies suggest that heavy fishing — primarily by one company — has depleted the menhaden spawning population to just 8 percent of its potential.

Menhaden may seem inconsequential to the seafood-lovers among us, but to striped bass they are a delicacy beyond compare. The fates of the two species are thought to be closely intertwined. Since the 1990s, scientists have found evidence that problems in the Chesapeake Bay striped bass population — poor nutrition and a prevalence of a bacterial infection called mycobacteriosis — are linked to a depletion of young menhaden in the bay.

So it's not too great a stretch to suggest that restricting the menhaden catch by 37 percent — as the commission has decided — could boost rockfish prevalence (and lower natural mortality rates) as well. And that's a big victory for advocates, including Gov. Martin O'Malley and officials at the state Department of Natural Resources, who spent years lobbying for this.

But the fight is far from over. Officials in Virginia, home to Omega Protein, Inc., the company responsible for an estimated 80 percent of the East Coast menhaden catch, are likely to resist the restrictions, which won't go into effect for two years. The Virginia legislature would have to approve of them in 2013, and Omega may take the matter to federal court before then.

The company, which turns menhaden into such things as animal feed and omega-3 fish oil capsules, has argued that poor menhaden spawning is the result of wind, tides and temperatures at critical moments of their life cycle and not overfishing. But that argument fails to consider what happens when spawning stocks are so depleted that an entire ecosystem is threatened.

It's also an observation that is commonly advanced about blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay — that weather conditions at the mouth of the bay determine crab spawning success. But restrictions instituted in the past several years by both Maryland and Virginia to protect female crabs have recently had a major impact on crab stocks.

Admittedly, the decision may cost some of Omega's 250 jobs in Virginia, at least in the short term. But if menhaden populations bounce back (as scientists are confident they will) that should be a win-win for the species and Omega if it leads to a more sustainable industry — one where the company can successfully harvest a smaller percentage of a larger fish population.

Maryland fishermen, meanwhile, should not assume that striped bass may not face harvest restrictions in the future as well. A significant reduction in the species' range (it's become less common in northern New England) lead some to call for a major cutback in its harvest. A drop-off in commercial landings or a poor recruitment year in 2012 could lead to a renewed call for stricter management.

If there's a lesson in this, it's the importance of good stewardship — and the need to accept some reasonable limits in the face of declining stocks. Omega would doubtless be facing far less onerous restrictions today if the company had endorsed some lesser reductions on the harvest of menhaden in years past. The longer conservation measures are resisted, the harsher they inevitably must be when they are finally adopted.

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