Last week was a big one for fisheries up and down the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. In Baltimore, Maryland, the board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) gathered to vote on an issue of paramount importance to recreational and commercial fishermen from Maine to Florida. And anglers were paying attention. In fact, in the months leading up to last week's vote, almost 160,000 individuals had submitted comments to the ASMFC voicing their opinion on what decision their state managers should make. A staggering majority of those comments—a mind-boggling 99 percent—came down on one side of the issue, making it abundantly clear to state managers how the vast majority of those who would be affected by their decisions felt. But when the vote came down, the majority of those managers sent an equally clear message to the residents of the states they represent: Too damned bad.
The big issue facing ASMFC managers was finalizing Amendment 3 of its Menhaden Fishery Management Plan, which provides guidelines on how each ASMFC member state must manage its stock of Atlantic menhaden—a forage fish that is also widely known as "the most important fish in the sea." Menhaden are a vital food source for predators of all sorts, from striped bass, tarpon, and bluefish to whales, tuna and and osprey. They are the single most important driver of the Atlantic Ocean's food chain and, as H. Bruce Franklin noted in his book on menhaden's importance, they play an "essential role in marine ecology perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet."
For decades, Menhaden have been removed from the Atlantic's waters in staggering numbers—with hundreds of millions to billions of fish landed each year by commercial operations that target menhaden for use in reduction operations (grinding up the fish for use in pet food, fertilizer, cosmetics, dietary supplements and so on) or to supply bait to other fisheries like New England's lobster fleets. From the early 1800s until 2012, menhaden were harvested without limit—commercial fleets were free to net as many menhaden as they dared, with no regard for the the stock's health or stability. But, after studies showed that menhaden populations had crashed to a mere 36% of historical levels, and with gamefish populations that depend on menhaden struggling (read: striped bass), a coalition of recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, business owners along the Atlantic, conservation groups and more united to successfully pressure the ASMFC to enact Amendment 2—the first ever limits on menhaden harvest.
The campaign that led to the successful passage of Amendment 2 was one backed by a diverse coalition and over 90,000 comments submitted to the ASMFC by concerned citizens. And it led to ASMFC managers finally facing a long-known reality—that as menhaden go, so go the predators that depend on them. The public spoke and managers listened. For the first time ever, the ASFMC was recognizing the ecological importance of tiny menhaden, rather than managing menhaden only to see how many billions of them could be netted and hauled from the ocean before there weren't anymore to go net.
That initial, first-ever limit on menhaden extraction (which was set as a 25 percent reduction of the 2011 harvest) was less than advocates were seeking, but it still marked a dramatic turning point in menhaden management and was expected to lead to significant recovery in menhaden stock. In the years since, anglers have been celebrating the return of menhaden to waters where they hadn't been seen in years. As Orvis' Tom Rosenbauer noted in a report in Hatch Magazine last year, "For the past 15 years there have been no menhaden in the harbors of Cape and Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. They just disappeared. Two weeks ago, while I was down fishing for albies, I saw more menhaden than I have ever seen in the harbors. They were so thick you could walk on them." Similar reports emerged up and down the coast and where the menhaden went, the predators followed.
Managing menhaden based on their ecological importance is commonly referred to as using "ecological reference points" and a group of scientists employed by the ASMFC, known as the Menhaden Biological Ecosystem Reference Point (BERP) working group. are currently conducting extensive studies in order to produce reference points specific to Atlantic menhaden. The process is expected to be completed by 2019, although concern exists that the process could extend into 2020 or beyond.
In the meantime—since that historic decision in 2012—pressure from the reduction and bait industries have slowly clawed away at those first-ever harvest limits. Twice, the ASMFC board has voted for harvest limit increases. First, a 10 percent increase and, subsequently, an additional 6.5 percent increase. With industry pressure mounting for yet another increase, this time around, a similar coalition—only much larger—convened to urge ASMFC managers to vote for "Option E" for Amendment 3, which would create an interim management plan known as 75/40. Although a bit wonky in its design, Option E would essentially compel state managers to aim to manage menhaden in a manner that would restore coastwide stocks to 75% of their historical abundance (although it would not mandate that managers take action unless stocks fell below 40% of historical abundance). Again, while imperfect, if managers were to adopt Option E, it would result in one important takeaway—no further increases in menhaden harvest limits.
As noted, the outpouring of support for Option E—for the end to the ASMFC's backsliding on its historic 2012 decision—almost doubled the support seen in 2012. Instead of 90,000 comments, this time around the ASMFC received 157,599—99 percent of which compelled ASMFC board members to vote for Option E. And anglers were hopeful. The board listened last time, with a fraction of the input. Surely this time would be no different.
When the votes were cast, however, the board voted decisively against Option E. Instead, by a 13-5 margin, the board voted to adopt Option B—the industry favored option that would return menhaden management to single-species, extraction-focused management and almost certainly lead to the board to pass further harvest limit increases. Unsurprisingly, when the board convened the next day, they did just that, voting for another increase—this time of 8 percent—resulting in 2018 harvest limits that are greater that those originally set in 2012.
"It is unfortunate that the commission voted as it did. In doing so they chose to ignore the vast amounts of public comments supporting the use of ecological reference points. And an increase in quota is a slap in the face to many of us who commented in support of Option E. There is some small consolation with a lower cap on the reduction harvest in the Chesapeake Bay but that is thin gruel compared to what could have been," noted Tom Sadler, deputy directory of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.
Captain John McMurray and Captain Patrick Paquette, in their excellent rundown of what happened at the Fissues blog offered the following reaction, "The quota increase really stinks. We’re almost certain we’ll see a decrease in menhaden abundance in the coming years as a result. And of course, a decrease in striped bass availability, whale sightings, etc ... We’ve been in this business long enough to understand that you win some fights and you lose some. We’re not going to sugar coat it. This was a big loss."
McMurray went on to offer limited encouragement, noting that "The menhaden board is committed to using the menhaden specific ecological reference points when they are ready ... but we should be very clear ... all those menhaden specific models will do is allow the board to understand and evaluate the trade-offs of leaving fish in the water vs the value of extracting them. There is no guarantee that the board will choose to leave more in the water just because there will presumably be a quantifiable benefit to doing so. That said, the info will be there, not only for the board to use, but for us to use … to advocate for keeping those fish in the water ... for the ecological value they will bring ... For the access they will provide, to striped bass, to whales etc. And that is very important in the context of proving our case, and swaying Commissioners to do the right thing."
In closing, McMurray added "We’re already gearing up for the next fight. We won’t give up. We can’t give up. And you can’t give up. Stay tuned, stay engaged."