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Long but very informative read on bunker issue: Saving Seafood.org] by Jonathan Hemmerdinger Special to Saving Seafood WASHINGTON - June 14 -The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's recent …

Long but very informative read on bunker issue:

Saving Seafood.org] by Jonathan Hemmerdinger Special to Saving Seafood

WASHINGTON - June 14 -The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's recent decision to reexamine a key aspect of how menhaden stocks are evaluated could alter the outcome of the agency's future menhaden stock assessments and lead to restrictions on the commercial harvest of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.

At issue are so-called reference points, benchmarks used in stock assessments to gauge the health of fish species. The 2010 menhaden stock assessment, released May 6, used reference points for fishing mortality (the rate of fish killed from fishing) and menhaden reproduction.

Based on those reference points, the agency concluded menhaden stocks were not overfishedÑfishing and reproduction were within the reference point limits.

On the same day it released the assessment, however, ASMFC asked its technical committee of some dozen scientists to examine new benchmarks to better account for so-called 'natural mortality'Ñmenhaden killed by natural predators.

Scientists call the approach 'ecosystem management' because it accounts for broader interaction between species.

Ecosystem reference points

The decision by ASMFC to examine natural mortality is a break from the past that could spur commercial fisheries management changes. And some insiders see the move as a compromise between a coalition of environmental and recreational fishing groups-particularly those in MarylandÑand Omega Protein Inc., by far the largest commercial harvester of menhaden.

Omega operates a fleet of menhaden fishing boats and a menhaden 'reduction' plant in Reedville, Va., on the state's so-called northern neck peninsula, where the oily fish are processed into omega-3 fish oil and livestock and aquaculture feed, among other products.

For years, Omega's opponents have insisted the stock assessments are flawed because they are based on faulty reference points.

The groups say that while the reference points do account for menhaden killed from fishing, they do not adequately account for menhaden killed by ocean birds, fish, whales and other animals.

The result, they say, is that menhaden stocks have been incorrectly deemed healthy and have been fished to the point where predators lack adequate food.

In the Chesapeake Bay, they argue, food demand outstrips supply.

To correct what they see as an imbalance, the groups have advocated reference points that account for the entire ecosystem, including consumption of menhaden by predators.

The current 'reference points are no damn good,' said Charlie Hutchinson, who writes a column for the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. ASMFC scientists 'don't have a handle' on what happens to menhaden in the wild É They aren't close to understanding what goes on in terms of consumption.'

Before allowing any commercial fishing, ASMFC should first allocate menhaden to 'the striped bass, weakfish, whales, bluefin [tuna], birds and other animals that depend on menhaden, ' said Phil Kline, an ocean campaigner with Greenpeace, a group that supports a complete shutdown of the menhaden fishing and reduction industry.

Omega Protein, however, and scientists with National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), say fishing isn't to blame for any predator-prey imbalance in the Bay.

Ron Lukens, Omega's senior fisheries biologist and former assistant director of the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, said fishing largely doesn't impact menhaden reproduction because menhaden females 'produce enormous amounts of eggs. '

Environmental conditions such as weather, tides, water quality, atmospheric pressure and temperature are the real factors that impact successful menhaden reproduction, he said.

'We believe that there are large scale climatic things affecting menhaden that are not related whatsoever to fishing. If we were to stop fishing altogether, it would have virtually no impact on spawning, ' said Lukens.

Joe Smith, a research fisheries biologist with the NMFS and member of the ASMFC technical committee, agreed.

'Intuitively, it makes sense' that less fishing means more menhaden, Smith said. 'But it doesn't work that way. Based on years of data, 'there doesn't seem to be a very good relationship between the number of spawners and the number of juveniles. We think [reproduction success] is mostly environmentally-driven. '

Even so, Smith said, the 2010 assessment is somewhat unique in terms of U. S. fisheries management because it does incorporate predation from three major fin fishÑstriper bass, bluefish and weakfish.

'Some detractors É say [we] are not incorporating predation. We do É It's a pretty sophisticated critter, this assessment, ' Smith said.

Agency's decision draws praise, concern

Kline at Greenpeace and others say the ASMFC's decision to reevaluation the reference points is a positive step.

'It's about time [the agency took] the responsibility of managing seriously and asked the right questions, ' he said. 'They weren't assessing the needs of the ecosystem. '

'The decision is the right decision. There is no question about that, ' said Hutchinson. 'In seven years I have been involved, [the agency has] always said there is no problem' with the reference points. 'This marks a 180-degree change from this position. '

Kline thinks the agency's move will rightly lead to new fishing restrictions. 'There will undoubtedly be declared massive ecosystem overfishing.'

Lukens of Omega Protein said his company also supports the reference point reexamination.

'Omega has always supported whatever the science says we need to do. Looking at this issue from a scientific standpoint is in line with our beliefs, ' he said.

He added, 'If the science definitively says we need to cut our harvest or menhaden will collapse, we will cut our harvest. It is in our best interest to make sure the population is healthy.'

But Lukens is skeptical enough data exists to support an accurate ecosystem assessment.

'There is nothing wrong with the premise' of ecosystem-based reference points, he told SavingSeafood, but 'we don't have the data, and the models are not refined to the point where we can manage fisheries. '

And Lukens fears incomplete data could unnecessarily hurt working people.

'When you are talking about people's livelihoods, you can't be exploring. You run the risk of putting people out of their jobs, ' he said. 'Why punish the fishery with a measure that will not result in more fish.'

More than 300 employees work on Omega's Virginia-based vessels and in its reduction plant in Reedville, on the eastern edge of the northern neck peninsula.

Job and revenue loss also concern Jerry Davis, executive director of The Northern Neck Planning District Commission, the region's economic development group.

Davis said the region is largely dependent on the fishing industry and Omega, which is the largest private employer in Northumberland County, and 'probably' the region's largest minority employer.

In a 2008 letter to Rep. Robert Wittman (D-Va.), Davis said Omega invests some $30 million in the local economy, has a payroll of some $13 million and supports hundreds of middle class jobs in area where such jobs are scarce.

Any fishing restrictions that cause Omega's Reedville plant to close would have a 'devastating' economic impact on the local community and the region, he told SavingSeafood on June 10.

Current reference points are standard

Doug Vaughan, also a research fisheries biologist with NMFS and member of the ASMFC technical committee, said the reference points used in the 2010 stock assessment are typical of every assessment he has contributed to since 1997, and most others in the United States.

And he said ecosystem reference points have been rarely used in previous fish stock assessments.

'I do stock assessments in South Atlantic and none of them have ecosystem benchmarks, ' he said. 'The only other place where there is active attempts to incorporate ecosystem aspects into assessments are with É Alaska pollock. '

Smith said there have been a few ecosystem fishery management efforts overseas, including in Europe's North Sea.

Changes take time

Brad Spear, senior coordinator for policy at ASMFC, said the technical committee is expected to complete its review of new reference points in four or five months. If the points are accepted by the agency, an addendum and public comment process will follow, which Spear said could take six months.

Policy changes might have to wait another few years, Spear said, until the next stock assessment.

'It will be a long process. '

Hutchinson isn't expecting a quick fix. 'I am more optimistic than I have been previously, [but] I don't like the ping pong game, ' he said. 'It's very bureaucratic. '

Communication barriers

Lukens at Omega said the decision to reexamine the reference points was not a decree to rein-in the reduction fishery, but a cautionary move to consider alternatives.

But he said his opponents have overshadowed science with rhetoric in calling the decision a victory and using it to wrongly criticize the validity of the 2010 stock assessment.

It's easy 'for a fishing organization to appeal to the heartstrings of the [recreational] fishing community,' Lukens said, but more difficult for 'scientists to write an article that says, 'No, here's the science.'

Hutchinson doesn't disagree. 'Those not wedded to computer models don't know what [the technical people] are talking about,' he said.

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