In wake of menhaden quota increase, some states rejoice as others push back

Published on
April 6, 2018

Changes to the menhaden quota allocation on the East Coast of the U.S.A. have been met by support from some states, while others are pushing back.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided in November 2017 to increase the menhaden catch limit from 200,000 metric tons to 216,000 metric tons for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Menhaden typically are utilized for the high amount of omega-3 fats they contain, and their oils are used dietary supplements, animal feed, lipstick, and many other products. The fish also serves as bait for a number of commercial fisheries along the coast, particularly in the crab and lobster industries. 

While the overall quota was increased, it was also redistributed. Some states, like Maine, saw their quotas jump enormously. 

“Maine’s quota jumped to 2.4 million pounds (1 million kilograms) – 13 times the quota available in 2016 and 2017,” said Jeff Nichols, director of communications for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “The number of harvesters that reported landings associated with Maine’s total allowable catch (TAC) in 2017 is too few to report because of confidentiality provisions in law. However, 17 vessels participated in the episodic event fishery and 13 in the incidental catch fishery, both of which are triggered once the TAC is met.”

An episodic event was triggered last year in Maine, allowing fishermen to catch far more than the typical quota. The Interstate Fishery Management Plan for menhaden allows the Atlantic Menhaden Management board to set aside one percent of the total allowable catch for “episodic events.” 

“Episodic events are defined as any instance when a qualified state has reached its individual state quota, prior to 1 September, and has information indicating the presence of unusually large amounts of menhaden in its state waters,” said Max Appelman, fishery management plan coordinator for the ASMFC. 

An episodic event can mean an increase in available quota of up to 4.7 million pounds (2.1 million kilograms). But, those events can only apply to state in the Northeast: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.

In Maine, the fish are typically used as lobster bait, and the increased quota is seen as a win for multiple parts of the industry. 

“This is a win for Maine,” Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher told the Portland Press Herald. “It is additional income for some of our small-scale guys who fish it, and that’s always good. But it’s also an incredibly important bait source for the lobster industry. Some of our lobstermen prefer it, and some use it as an alternative to herring. But if we aren’t catching it locally, they’re having to buy the trucked-in stuff from [New] Jersey, and that’s expensive.”

The quota change hasn’t been received quite so positively in other states, however. Virginia historically has received the lion’s share of the menhaden quota, and well over three-quarters of all commercial fishing and processing of the oily fish occurs there. While the state received a lower overall percentage of the quota, thanks to the quota increase Virginia is still allowed to take home over 78 percent of the total quota of menhaden a year, which totals around 170,000 metric tons. 

However, the quota allowance for Chesapeake Bay has been decreased significantly. What was a quota of 87,216 metric tons has been cut to 51,000 metric tons in the bay for fish harvested for the purpose of reduction. The largest harvester of menhaden, Omega Protein, objected strongly to the change, especially considering the company primarily processes and reduces the fish into various products. 

Virginia, said Appelman, is an outlier when it comes to the menhaden quota. 

“This is a very unique situation where the state legislature sets regulations for the menhaden fishery in Virginia,” he said.  

In March, a bill was sent to the Virginia house to bring the state’s quota in line with the ASMFC’s guidelines. Menhaden is the only fish species regulated by the General Assembly in Virginia, rather than the state’s Marine Resources Commission. The bill failed on 6 March, leaving Virginia out of compliance with the ASMFC for at least a year. 

“Virginia’s legislature is required to promulgate this Harvest Cap into state regulations, which it also failed to do,” Appelman said.

Omega Protein, saw the failure of that bill as a win. Omega operates a large plant in Reedville, Virginia, which processes menhaden into a variety of products.

Monty Deihl, vice president of Omega Protein in Reedville, has come out publicly against the ASMFC’s decision to change and redistribute the menhaden quota. 

“In November, the commission set a new quota for menhaden. Despite a new assessment showing the stock as healthy and an overall increase in the quota coastwide, Virginia actually saw its share of menhaden decrease,” Deihl wrote in a letter to the Daily Press. “To accomplish this, the commission defied years of established management practices and imposed a redistribution of quota — even to states with no menhaden fishery — at the expense of Virginia fishermen.”

Deihl, and Omega, also argue that there’s no scientific evidence that the menhaden fishery needs to have stricter quotas. The commission’s own assessment of the fishery is that is not overfished. 

The company also objects to the way in which the ASMFC made their decision on the fishery. 

“It’s the method in which it was perpetrated, the idea of have-not states ganging up on the one big have state,” said Ben Landry, director of public relations for Omega Protein. “Some states get hundreds or thousands of percent increase, and Virginia doesn’t get anything.”

The decision was also driven, Landry said, by politics more than landing data or science. 

“That kind of break from using historic landings to drive allocation decisions is really troubling to us, we see it as unfair,” he said. “That’s why we think the ASMFC is teetering on a very perilous path here.”

Despite the objections, the ASMFC said it stands by their decision on the fishery. 

“Allocating quota is always a touchy subject,” Appelman said. “There are always states that feel they got the short end of the deal, but that’s what interstate fishery management is all about. Such is life.” 

Photo courtesy of Omega Protein

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