Omega Protein wins victory with menhaden quota's 8 percent increase

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted Tuesday to allow for a “modest” increase in the harvest of what some call the most important fish in the sea.

The measure, which passed on the last day of a two-day meeting of the commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, means the total allowable catch for Atlantic menhaden will be set at 216,000 metric tons for both the 2018 and 2019 seasons. It also calls for the creation of a monitoring program to determine limits for future seasons.

Most menhaden caught aren’t processed for direct consumption. Instead, the fish is coveted for the omega-3 fats it contains. It’s used to create products ranging from fish oil dietary supplements to animal feed to lipstick. It’s also considered a major food source for predators in the marine ecosystem.

Robert Ballou, the council’s board chairman, noted that the measure went against most of the public comments the ASMFC received. However, he said the decision balances the fish’s role in the ecosystem with the needs of stakeholders. 

“(T)he approved TAC, which represents a modest eight percent increase in the coastwide quota, has zero percent chance of subjecting the resource to overfishing or causing it to be overfished,” he said.

The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition welcomed the council’s decision. In a statement, the coalition said it supported the creation of ecological reference points specific to menhaden. It added that experts, including Ray Hilborn, recommend forage fish like menhaden should be managed on an individual species basis. 

“The best science shows that managing forage fish according to general biological principals, as advocated by various environmental and sport-fishing groups, is not the correct approach,” the coalition said in a statement.

While the council increased the overall cap, it did significantly reduce the catch limit within Chesapeake Bay. Council members said the limit of 51,000 metric tons, a reduction of more than 36,000 metric tons, is related to the bay serving as a nursery area for various species.

Environmental advocates warned that the decision could have serious repercussions for other fish and marine life that rely on menhaden. Not only is it an important part of their diet, but menhaden also eat a significant amount of plankton. Because of that, menhaden reduce the risk of algae blooms, which can harm humans and marine wildlife.

"There has been overwhelming public support for making sure that enough menhaden are left to serve their role in the food chain,” said Chris Moore, the senior regional ecosystem scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “But the ASMFC has decided to wait to move forward until technical work groups have finished the development of ecosystem-based models for menhaden.” 

Moore said the foundation will continue to press for a menhaden catch plan that considers the entire ecosystem.

In excess of three-quarters of the total allocation was given to Virginia, which is home to a major Omega Protein processing facility. More than 450 company employees and supporters signed a petition that urged the commission to pass an increase in the catch limit. 

Among the supporters was a homebuilder who said Omega Protein’s Reedville facility was responsible for about a quarter of his work. Ron Herring said when commission cut the limit by 20 percent five years ago, it had a reverberating effect on the fishing community located in Virginia’s Northern Neck region.

“There were 30-some people who lost their employment,” Herring said. “The community had a sense of, ‘Wow, what’s going to happen to our industry?’ It made a mental impact on us.”

Omega Protein supporters weren’t the only ones who were touting jobs as a rallying cry. In a joint op-ed piece published two weeks ago by the Providence Journal, Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the (Narragansett) Bay, Larry Taft, executive director of Rhode Island’s Audubon Society and Steve Medeiros, president of the state’s Saltwater Anglers Association, said the bay used to be a major spawning ground for the fish. However, the commercial fishing industry has depleted the stock. 

They had hoped the commission would have passed a measure that would have protected more of the fish in the area. That, in turn, would have served to benefit the striped bass fishery that attracts hundreds of thousands of anglers every year. 

“Any charter captain or recreational angler will tell you: More menhaden equals more stripers and bigger, healthier fish,” they said. “And more stripers equal more jobs – in marinas, restaurants, hotels, and bait and tackle shops, and on charter boats.”

States are required to submit their implementation plans no later than 1 January, with final implementation required no later than 15 April.


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