Amid mixed signals, a positive step for menhaden

SALT LAKE CITY — This was going to be about fun and games. That's what drives the Outdoor Retailer trade show, the twice-annual event that fills the city's Salt Palace with the gear and goodies that you, dear consumer, will be lusting after next year.

But despite a record number of people at the show, there's a sense of the same old, same old. Maybe we're on another technological plateau, where the only changes to the average consumer's eye are in the colors and dazzling variety options offered on a given product. Or maybe, as several manufacturers suggested, the staggering cost of research and development in this bleak economy is simply prohibitive.

Anyway, I just don't see paying $480 for a rain shell when my $100 jacket is still alive and kicking.

Distraction of toys aside, I keep replaying in my mind snippets of a different, more serious show that made up the early part of last week.

The quarterly meetings of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission are neither for the faint of heart nor for those who fear eye-glazing discussions about fecundity and recruitment. They are held in airless spaces devoid of sunlight, where scientists frequently drop the "F" bomb, but where "F" is fishing mortality rate.

As a consumer of fish and a friend of the planet, you might find the topics fascinating. If only you could follow the dialogue. Instead, you feel like reaching for a pair of United Nations translator headphones.

ASMFC was designed by bureaucrats for bureaucrats to decide how to manage coastal species. Each East Coast state is represented by not one, but three individuals, who may not be of a single mind on an issue. If that weren't too many passengers for the lifeboat, the federal government has two representatives and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission is represented.

You recall the chaotic stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers movie, "A Night at the Opera?"

It's like that, but without the hard-boiled eggs.

Getting a proposal from point A to point B can take years, and getting all the way to Z defies the human life span.

This week, the Gang of a Billion tackled three interconnected species — lobster, striped bass and menhaden — with very mixed results.

The lobster debate was a dismal warm-up. After dire warnings about a crustacean shortage in the waters of Southern New England that triggered talk of a 5-year moratorium to allow the population to rebuild, what did the commissioners do? Why, with bold vision they voted to cut the annual harvest by 10 percent.

That should fix things, don't you think?

ASMFC scientists believe the paucity of lobsters south of Cape Cod can be blamed on warmer waters. But lobstermen point their fingers at striped bass.

"The biggest impact is from the striped bass, and the fish populations (of bass and other lobster predators) are exploding," Nick Crismale, a lobsterman of 38 years, told the Gloucester Times. "They are all feeding on lobsters. The bass impact is huge."

So, too many striped bass are causing the problem, eh?

But ASMFC representatives — especially those from New England — and many in the recreational and commercial fishing communities believe that all is not well with striped bass, either.

The betting window was jammed with folks who thought commissioners would forge ahead with a proposal that could reduce the East Coast's harvest by up to 40 percent by squeezing seasons, minimum lengths or limits.

Commissioners decided instead to wait until November's annual meeting, where an updated striped bass population assessment will be presented, to select management options to send out for public comment. Maybe by that time striped bass will have confessed to eating too many lobster rolls.

Still, you have to wonder what these ASMFC folks are thinking. Over the last two years, they've toyed with the idea of increasing the commercial harvest only to turn around this year with public hand-wringing over the plight of stripers.

Finally, we get to ASMFC's shining moment. After dithering for nearly a decade on the fate of menhaden, the commission voted to allow regular folks to comment on a suite of options that could reduce the commercial harvest of the fish by as much as 45 percent.

When they aren't being vacuumed from the Chesapeake Bay by a commercial fleet to be ground into animal feed, cosmetics and heart-healthy supplements, menhaden are the favorite food of striped bass and other fish of prey. But menhaden have been overfished in 32 of the last 54 years and their stock is at historical lows.

Maybe that's why stripers have turned to lobster. Can't say I blame them.

Only Virginia, home to the Omega Protein fleet, voted against allowing the public to speak.

States, including Maryland, will hold hearings over the next two months on five options.

But from a lobbying standpoint perhaps its biggest asset is to reach out to bait companies, from Maine to North Carolina, that are expected to switch to menhaden now that river herring are off-limits while the stock rebuilds. The bait companies, in turn, will try to enlist lobstermen and Maryland's commercial crabbers to lobby against restrictions on menhaden.

On the other side of the ledger are recreational anglers and conservationists, but no one knows if they will show up or write emails.

"We can't take it for granted," said Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. "There's a chance to speak for the menhaden and get something done. It's now or never."


Recommended on Baltimore Sun