Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

[Baltimore Sun Editorial] Aug 1, 2011

The coming days will be the tale of two fish and the regulatory process by which the pair is protected and managed.

The future of one fish, the striped bass, is directly tied to the future of the other, menhaden. But you wouldn't know it by the way the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is acting.

Some commissioners are hair-on-fire ready to vote on Monday to begin the process of adding new protections for striped bass that could change size and creel limits or shorten the fishing season. Forget the fact that the science to back such a decision—a new stock assessment--is still more than a month away from completion.

But the menhaden debate may linger on, as it has for years, or result in approval of some half-hearted measure.

Yes, there are some disturbing signs that the striped bass, Maryland's state fish, is facing tough times. The Chesapeake Bay, the spawning grounds and nursery for three-quarters of the entire Atlantic Seaboard population, is a filthy mess with an ever-increasing dead zone. Many adult striped bass have sores and are ravaged by a fatal disease that remains a mystery to scientists. The census of baby stripers in the bay has been below average for the last three years.

And the menhaden stock—a primary food source for striped bass—is at 14 percent of what it was 30 years ago.

But what will ASMFC do to protect menhaden on Tuesday, when the species comes up for discussion?

Maybe looking at harvest numbers they've had in hand for months, numbers that show the commercial harvest has exceeded its target in 32 of the last 54 years, commissioners will finally vote to fire up the regulation-making machine to give the fish a chance to repopulate the waters.

But maybe not.

In the first place, there's Omega Protein, “the 300-pound gorilla in the room,” as Wellfleet, Mass., officials call it. The company, which has a fleet of 10 vessels and eight spotter planes working in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake, has done a superb job of protecting its interests, greasing the palms of elected Virginia officials, packing legislative hearings in Annapolis and mounting a public relations campaign that included a video endorsement by the executive director of ASMFC, Vince O'Shea.

Omega grinds up menhaden at its Reedville, Va., plant for use in heart-healthy Omega-3 products, pet food and cosmetics. Its operation employs about 300 people, which makes it a big player both locally and in Richmond, the state capital.

In a four-page letter to ASMFC, Omega and 41 other commercial interests urge the commissioners to “resist any calls to rush forward precipitously, ahead of schedule, with the development of any new management scheme.”

Rush ahead? Really?

In 1967, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission urged the governor and General Assembly to authorize a study “of the effect on the menhaden fishery operations on recreational fishing in Virginia” in time for the 1970 legislative session. Nothing really came of it, but the first red flag was raised—by Virginia.

Four decades hardly seems to be rushing to conclusions.

In an interview last month with The Public Trust Project, Dr. Rob Latour, a Virginia fisheries expert who led ASMFC's 2010 menhaden stock assessment said: “There are lots of flags within the stock assessment that cause concern…the total abundance predicted by the stock assessment is the lowest on record from 1954-2008. How can it be the lowest ever and still be healthy or not overfished?”

How, indeed.

But Omega has a new posse of allies: commercial fishermen from Maine to North Carolina who supply the lobster fleet with bait.

With overfished herring being placed off-limits while the stock is rebuilt, bait boats are likely to substitute menhaden.

If ASMFC didn't have the intestinal fortitude to take on Omega by itself, why should anyone think it can summon up the courage to take on commercial interests from nine states?

But if the commissioners are ready to forge ahead without the latest science to protect striped bass, how can they in good conscience and with plenty of alarming numbers in hand deny menhaden protection that really means something?


Copyright 2011, The Washington Post Co. 

The Atlantic menhaden is one of those big things that come in small packages. It's a pipsqueak of a fish, but it feeds some of the most important fish in the ocean. If it vanished, marine biologists say, the ecosystems of the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay could come crashing down.

As the population of this once abundant fish dwindles in dramatic fashion, that theory might be put to a test. Humans don't eat the oily and bony menhaden, but it's caught by the metric ton each year, ground into meal and fed to farm fish and livestock.

Environmentalists fear that the commercial catch takes food from striped bass, bluefish, swordfish, king mackerel, tuna, loons and eagles that rely on menhaden.

The reduction of menhaden, widely dubbed "the most important fish in the ocean," is such a concern that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is scheduled to meet Tuesday to consider whether its harvest for commercial products and sport-fishing bait should be significantly lowered for the first time in years.

"Menhaden is ecologically critical to the marine ecosystem along the east coast," said Bill Goldsborough, fisheries director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It's not much of an exaggeration to call it the most important fish in the sea. It's an essential link in the food chain."

In addition to feeding saltwater fish that Americans love to fish and eat, tiny menhaden feed on phytoplankton that contribute to algae blooms and oxygen-depleted "dead zones." A dead zone currently in the Chesapeake is on track to be the largest ever, Maryland and Virginia state biologists have said.

At the meeting in Alexandria, commissioners will be guided by an assessment that says menhaden has not been overfished, spokeswoman Tina Berger said. But the commissioners are concerned about other data that show the number of young fish entering the population is falling, and that the number of eggs that sustain menhaden has started to dip below a standard they set.

The commissioners are expected to consider a proposal to increase the number of young menhaden, as well as egg production, possibly by reducing the menhaden catch, experts say. A final decision could be made in November after a three-month public comment period is held on whatever proposal the commission adopts, Berger said.

The meeting will be closely watched by Omega Protein, which last year fished about 160,000 metric tons of menhaden in Atlantic coastal waters - 80 percent of the total catch. The other 20 percent is collected by small companies that fish it for bait.

The fisheries commission assessments of the menhaden stock show a dramatic decline: Fifty years ago, the abundance of menhaden a year old or less was nearly 90 billion. Twenty-five years ago, it was 70 billion.

Now, after continued fishing that environmentalists say is loosely regulated, only 18 billion menhaden of that age remain.

Omega Protein spokesman Ben Landry said factors such as poor water quality have reduced the fish.

Nevertheless, 13 coastal states from Maine to Florida under the commission's jurisdiction have banned Omega Protein from harvesting menhaden in state waters with its huge ships and large purse seine nets.

Only Virginia allows the company full access to its waters in the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay. North Carolina gives very limited access, according to Landry and the Coastal Conservation Association that monitors the menhaden harvest.

Virginia also stands alone in managing its menhaden fishery from an unusual place, the state General Assembly.

Others rely on specialists at environmental agencies such as Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and New Jersey's Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission declined to comment on why state politicians gave it control over all other fish species but held on to the menhaden to manage themselves.

"It's political," said John Bello, who sits on the board of directors for the Coastal Conservation Association. The association has unsuccessfully pushed legislation to transfer management of the menhaden fishery to professionals at the VMRC for 10 years.

Omega Protein has a processing plant in Reedville, Va.; a reduction in the harvest might threaten 250 jobs there.

"I think there's this notion that environmentalists have put out for a long time that this is a depleted stock and the reason behind the depletion is Omega Protein," said Landry, the spokesman. "Overfishing occurred in one year, 2008, in the last 10."

Landry said the abundance of menhaden is "far over the commission's threshold," and the commission, he said, should keep that in mind. He said there are enough spawners and eggs in the population to replenish itself.

"Trillions of eggs are released in the water," he said. If they do not survive, poor water quality, water temperatures and predators share more of the blame than Omega Protein's giant nets.

But environmentalists say those factors cannot account for an 88 percent drop in menhaden since 1984.

Its schools were once so abundant that rivers and streams turned silver when menhaden swam. Native Americans and European explorers sometimes tried to catch menhaden by hand.

Without menhaden, the ocean's ecology and food chain would be completely thrown out of whack, marine biologists and environmentalists say.

Search the bellies of dolphins, whales, sailfish and seafood-eating humans and at least traces of menhaden will show up.

"There's plenty of science showing that striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay have an infection, a wasting disease that's fatal, and the most likely culprit is poor nutrition," Goldsborough said.

Berger, the commission spokeswoman, played down that science as old. She said studies have since shown that diseases suffered by striped bass were attributed to other factors, such as water quality.

The commission's focus should rest on the menhaden's importance to the Atlantic's food web, said Jay Odell, director of the Nature Conservancy's Mid-Atlantic marine program.

"It's impossible to imagine that reducing the menhaden stock so much has not had some negative impact," Odell said. "Fisheries scholars differ on exactly what the cause and effect of the different changes are. But menhaden sit at the very base of the food chain, and scientists around the world are saying they need to be managed more conservatively."

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