Outdoors: The more menhaden the better

An abundance of menhaden in the Chesapeake means healthier rockfish and other marine animals.
An abundance of menhaden in the Chesapeake means healthier rockfish and other marine animals. (Capt. Chris D. Dollar / Capital Gazette)

Only the hardiest of the hard core striper anglers are out on the water trying to catch a holiday rockfish before the season expires on Dec. 20. Those folks tasked with creating policy and managing our fisheries, however, have work left to do before 2016 winds down.

From oysters and crabs to stripers and menhaden, a full slate of important topics dot the agenda when the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team meets for its biannual meeting in Annapolis on Dec. 6-7. Day One's discussion begins at 10 a.m. and focuses heavily on oysters, and will be held at CBF's Philip Merrill Environmental Center on 6 Herndon Avenue in Bay Ridge. On Day Two, experts will share their vision to improve the Chesapeake Bay's health as well as talk about forage fish, crabs and stripers. The second session begins at 9 a.m. and will be held at the Chesapeake Bay Program's Joe Macknis Memorial Conference Room — green "Fish Shack" building — on 410 Severn Avenue in Annapolis.


And later that day, at the Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — the coastal board that overseas fishery management from the shoreline to three miles out into the ocean — gives us, the public, a chance to comment on its new plan to oversee menhaden. Public meetings will also be held in Virginia, Delaware and in other states throughout the menhaden's range. (See locations, times and dates below.)

Even if you don't fish (heaven help you) and have only the slightest interest in a healthier bay it's hard for me to imagine you haven't heard about the crucial role menhaden play in the Chesapeake and Atlantic's food web. Many Top Tier predators — stripers, yes — but also red drum, bluefish and tunas as well as whales and sea birds, eat bunker, the nickname of these protein-packed forage fish.

And nearly all of the major conservation and sportfishing groups believe the ASMFC needs to shift its philosophy on menhaden management to reflect this fact. The proposed plan would start to do that by ensuring a science-based, ecosystem-centered approach guides their decision making, especially with regard to how many menhaden can be removed from the marine environment without disrupting the food chain. The ASMFC's current system of implementing catch quotas, some argue, operates without fully knowing the impact of such actions.

The proposed plan would also require that all menhaden harvested from all of the various fisheries are counted. A while back, one conservationist remarked, most likely out of frustration, he thought the current approach was a bit like cherry picking data. True, his comment isn't nearly on the level of the Einstein quip mocking less thorough scientists, "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts," and it is true ASMFC and state fishery staff are working to improve the data, his point remains valid: When there are gaps in knowledge, it's imperative to err on the side of conservation.

To this point, groups including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are concerned about the low abundance of menhaden in the Chesapeake and that the current harvest cap may be under performing. So they also want the ASMFC to reduce the harvest cap to half of its current level. That could possibly result in a kind of ecological bunker reserver — bank the bunker, so to speak — for when downturns in spawning success occur. And they will, as they always do.

While I've laid out a few highlights, your best bet is to read the document yourself. It's easily found on the ASMFC's webpage (asfmc.org) or that of other fishery groups.

For the average fisherman like you and me, handicapping what the ASFMC may or may not do is perhaps a fool's errand. After all, in the four years following their historic decision to implement the first-ever cap on the bunker harvest — and that only after many years of pleading, cajoling and pressing, mind you — reports have flowed from up and down the Chesapeake and along the coast of prodigious bunker schools. And yet, even in the face of this encouraging progress the board still voted in October to increase the menhaden quota for the Atlantic Coast, arguably to the overwhelming benefit of the single largest commercial harvester, Omega Protein.

But this you can count on: Radio silence from the general fishing public could very well be interpreted as tacit approval — or indifference — to return to business as usual, and that just might spell trouble for one of the most important fishes in the bay.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Dec. 7 at 6 p.m., Calvary United Methodist Church, Fellowship Hall, 301 Rowe Boulevard, Annapolis.

Potomac River Fisheries Commission, Dec. 6 at 6 p.m., Carpenter Building, 222 Taylor Street, Colonial Beach, Va.

Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control, Dec. 8 at 6:30 p.m., 901 Pilottown Road, Lewes, Del.

Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Dec. 5 at 6 p.m., 2600 Washington Ave, 4th Floor, Newport News, Va.

PSG CHRISTMAS MEETING: Want a chance to win a fishing trip for two on the charter boat Drizzle Bar with Capt. George Bentz, Jr.? (Who, by the way, will also perform his famous reading of the poem "The Night Before Christmas" aka "A Visit from St. Nicholas.") How about a face-to-face so you can tell the Fat Man what you really want for Christmas. All of that, plus Capt. Wayne Morgan of "Frayed Knot Fishing" sharing his proven rockfish tactics, will be offered at the Pasadena Sportfishing Group's annual Christmas Meeting on Dec. 12. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. As always, the PSG meets at the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company on 161 Ritchie Highway in Severna Park. For more details and directions, click pasadenasportfishing.com.

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


Outdoors calendar

Dec. 7: Free State Fly Fishers' "Holiday Dinner." Mike's Crab House on the South River, Riva Road Bridge. Details at facebook.com/FSFFMD.

Dec. 13 thru Jan. 28: Final Split of Duck Season.

Dec. 16 thru Feb. 4: Final Split of Canada Goose Season. Daily bag limit is two (2) geese and the possession limit six (6).

Jan. 14: MSSA Frederick Chapter's "Saltwater Fishing Expo," 8 a.m.-4 p.m. at Frederick County Fairgrounds, 797 E. Patrick St., Building #9, Frederick. Regional experts as well as Ed "The Beard" from NatGeo's "Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks." Inshore/offshore tackle vendors, charter captains, custom rod builders, and crabbing supplies.

Jan. 16: MSSA Broadneck/Magothy #10 Chapter Meeting at 7:30 p.m, American Legion Post #175, 832 Manhattan Beach Rd., Severna Park.

Jan. 26–29: Progressive® Insurance "Baltimore Boat Show," Baltimore Convention Center. Details at BaltimoreBoatShow.com.


Jan. 28-29: MSSA's Kent Island Fishermen 7th annual Fishing Flea Market, Kent Island American Legion Post # 278, 800 Romancoke Road, Stevensville. Show runs from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sunday. Contact Dave Stith 410-643-3970 or Islander655@atlanticbb.net.

Feb. 1: Free State Fly Fishers' meeting. Capt. Chris Dollar talks fly fishing and light tackle from SUPS and kayaks. 7:30 p.m. at Davidsonville Family Recreation Center, 3789 Queen Anne Bridge Road, Davidsonville. Details at facebook.com/FSFFMD.

Feb. 25: MSSA Annapolis Chapter "Saltwater Fishing Expo" 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Annapolis Elks Club, Solomons Island Road, Annapolis. Seminars from area experts as well as tackle vendors, charter captains, and crabbing supplies. Details at mssaannapolis.com.

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