East Coast fisheries managers have approved increasing commercial harvests of Atlantic menhaden from Maine to Florida.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which regulates harvests of nearshore migratory fish, voted Wednesday to set a new coastwide menhaden catch cap of 233,550 metric tons, a 20 percent increase hundred more than the current quota.
The long-standing Chesapeake Bay harvest limit remains unchanged at 51,000 metric tons. But conservationists and anglers continue to worry about the impact on the bay of large-scale menhaden fishing near its mouth.
The commission’s action follows a recent stock assessment that concluded that menhaden are not being overexploited and that harvests could be substantially increased without jeopardizing the stock’s abundance.
Menhaden are small, fatty fish that are harvested primarily for processing or “reduction” into animal feed and human dietary supplements, but also for use as bait in crab, lobster, and catching other fish.
Its commercial harvest has long been controversial, especially in the bay, a prime nursery area for the coastal population. Conservation groups contend that a fishing fleet operated by Omega Protein in Reedville, VA leaves too few forage fish in the water to support striped bass and a variety of other creatures that feed on them.
In response to this concern, the commission adjusted its assessment process a couple of years ago to better account for menhaden’s role in the food chain. But to the dismay of some conservation advocates, the new methodology concluded that the stock was healthy enough to sustain larger harvests.
“We thought this population was healthy for a long time,” Omega spokesman Ben Landry said, but the commission had hesitated for years to act on the advice of previous experts who supported an increase. “It looks like this time they really trusted what the stock assessment indicated.”
However, the increased harvest limit will be of limited benefit to Omega, because the commission also reallocated the catch along the coast. It awarded a slightly larger quota to commercial harvesters in New England, where they have been working with more nets in recent years to provide bait for the lobster industry and other fisheries. As a result, Virginia saw its share of the overall harvest cut across the coast.
Landry said the increased harvest limit across the coast would still allow Omega to catch more fish, but not as many as he had hoped. He said that could limit the number of people the company could hire to increase its Reedville workforce of 260.
Conservation advocates acknowledged the logic of the reallocation but were disappointed with the magnitude of the increase.
Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he expected the commission to allow only a smaller increase in catch because so much of it occurs near the mouth of the bay. Omega’s six fishing vessels operating primarily in the bay and off the coast of Virginia account for about 70 percent of the entire Atlantic Coast harvest.
“Recognizing the importance of menhaden to striped bass, other fish, birds, and marine mammals,” Moore said, “we believed a more cautious approach to the quota increase was warranted.”
Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, likened the commission’s decision to “a slap in the face” after experiencing what he described as the poorest fishing season ever has ever had on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
“This just puts more pressure on Virginia menhaden and increases the likelihood that we won’t have enough menhaden in the bay to serve as forage for fish like striped bass, cobia, and others,” Atkinson said.
Two Virginia lawmakers have indicated they may seek legislation that would require a study of whether menhaden are being depleted locally, but Atkinson said that could take years to determine.
“We don’t really have 7 to 10 years to figure out if there’s a problem here,” Atkinson said. In addition to blaming Omega for overfishing, he and others complain of large “spills” of dead menhaden and other fish washing up on the bay’s shores from the nets when the fleet works on the lower Chesapeake.
Landry said he doubted such a study would be possible. Menhaden migrate in and out of the bay, causing their numbers within the estuary to ebb and flow dramatically, he explained.
“I think the concept is great,” Landry said. “I don’t know how you do that with any credibility.”
A coalition of 11 Virginia-based and national conservation and sport fishing groups, including Atkinson’s, has gathered more than 10,000 signatures on petitions asking Virginia to stop Omega from harvesting menhaden in the bay.