Environmental groups and the seafood industry have both supported a decision on 5 August by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to adopt Ecological Reference Points (ERPs) for Atlantic menhaden.
The decision comes after a multi-year conflict over the menhaden quota between the ASMFC, the state of Virginia, and Omega Protein – the largest harvester of menhaden in the U.S. That conflict started back in 2017, and was only resolved in May of this year.
This latest decision by the ASMFC will now mean that quota determinations on menhaden will also be based on “Ecological Reference Points,” which boils down to making decisions on the menhaden quota based on both the availability of the stock of menhaden and the influence it has on the many predatory species that consume it as a primary source of food.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group that has been pushing for the ASMFC to institute an ERP for menhaden, applauded the commissions decision, calling it a “first step to formally considering the importance of menhaden to other predators, including striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish.”
“This is a historic day for fisheries management. Menhaden have been called the most important fish in the sea for good reason. Menhaden are an essential part of the diet of numerous fish species including striped bass, along with dolphins, whales, osprey and other seabirds,” CBF President William C. Baker said in a release soon after the decision. “We are grateful for the help of partner organizations, and the thousands of CBF members who have long supported this effort and enthusiastically participated in the fight to make this effort a success.”
The National Wildlife Federation also came out in support of the commission’s decision to begin using ERPs when determining the menhaden quota.
“The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Menhaden Management Board’s unanimous adoption of a new model for managing forage fish like menhaden will help strengthen the hand of species like whales, porpoises, osprey, eagles, sharks, striped bass, and bluefish,” the NWF said in a press release. “Ecological Reference Points are a long-heralded scientific model for managing species like menhaden, which are a forage base for numerous predators, to ensure that a sufficient amount of the species remains unfished to account for these predator needs.”
The new decision, the NWF said, will “serve as a world-wide model” in fishery management of forage fish.
“A kid in Queens who has seen a huge resurgence of humpback whales in New York City waters across the last decade and a striped bass angler in the Chesapeake Bay have this in common – abundant menhaden are responsible for their cherished experiences,” NWF Northeast Director of Conservation Partnerships Zach Cockrum said in a press release. “The adoption of Ecological Reference Points to manage menhaden by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commissioners will help millions of Americans to see thriving populations of whales, porpoises, osprey, eagles, sharks, striped bass, and bluefish in the future. We look forward to working with the commission to implement the Ecological Reference Points and encourage the development of more complex models to ensure we are accounting for all ecosystem benefits of menhaden.”
Omega Protein, which has achieved Marine Stewardship Council certification for both Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico menhaden, also supported the ASMFC’s decision to use ERPs when determining the menhaden quota.
“The ERP working group has worked for many years to develop the ecosystem model, and we will continue to support its development as the model’s accuracy and reliability improves over the next few years,” Omega Protein said. “It is now the responsibility of the commission to accurately estimate the populations of both menhaden and its predators and then make fair and equitable management decisions based upon the model’s findings.”
A recent study released by the Science Center for Marine Fisheries and performed by Steve Cadrin of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth determined that the vast majority of menhaden remain in the water even at the current fishing levels. The study found that over the ten-year period spanning from 2008 to 2017, the fishery “harvested an average of less than one percent of the total menhaden population, with the remaining percent of the menhaden stock left in the ocean serving as food for predators and other species.”
“Another important measurement, fecundity, has reached a near-record high, and is well above the threshold level set by the ASMFC,” Cadrin wrote. “Fecundity is one of the best measurements that fisheries managers have for determining whether or not a species is being managed sustainably. According to the assessment, the menhaden stock is producing more than enough eggs to successfully maintain the coastwide population.”
Omega Protein points to that study, and the continuing evidence that menhaden is not subject to overfishing, nor is it being overfished. However, it also cautioned that predator species of menhaden may need further controls.
“The commission will also likely need to control fishing on predator stocks, as many key species are currently overfished. This could result in harvest reductions for predator species; the commission cannot rely on the availability of menhaden alone to rebuild these predator stocks,” Omega Protein said. “As recognized at this week’s meeting and in peer reviews by the Center of Independent Experts, having menhaden in the water at any abundance level is not guaranteed to help predator species reach their target biomass levels. In fact, expert scientists have stated that a moratorium on all menhaden fishing would not enable some predators to reach their target biomass without harvest reductions.”
Photo courtesy of NOAA