What’s Next at The ASMFC?
Menhaden Muddle # 17
By Charlie Hutchinson
There has been a considerable gap in time between Muddle #16 and #17. One of the reasons for the lack of commentary is the lack of any perceived action with respect to changes in menhaden regulation. However there are things occurring that have a bearing on what may or may not transpire at the next Menhaden Management Board meeting scheduled during the next ASMFC meeting March 21-24.
First is a change in leadership on the Menhaden Board. Mr. Lapoint (from Maine) is no longer the chairman. Under his chairmanship the attitude of the Commissioners changed from apparent indifference to one of concern, and the acceptance of the need for new management methods. Perhaps this was related in some degree to the situation in New England waters where a lack of forage fish is having a significant impact on fishing … both commercial and recreational. His replacement Mr. Daniels hails from North Carolina, and that area has traditionally been more pro commercial industry than pro conservation. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Board dynamics in March.
Second is the legislative activity in the state of Virginia. Five bills have been introduced relating to menhaden. One seeks the transfer of responsibility for implementing ASMFC management plans for menhaden from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission VMRC. Others place limits and restrictions on the reduction harvest in Virginia waters. With the current McDonnell administration making veto noises, none of the bills are expected to pass.
Third, the Technical Committee has met and expected to announce that the revised assessment results are such that relative to the existing standards for menhaden abundance, the stock “is being overfished.” In addition, they will be responding to the Board’s requirement that they provide new reference points for rebuilding abundance by restricting harvest. Specifically the committee was directed to evaluate requirements to increase the age 3+ spawning stock component to 15%, 25%, and 40% of an unfished stock. At the January Technical Committee meeting, the two scientists hired by Omega and their legal representative were quite active. While they were attending as guests (the meetings are open to the public), their behavior reportedly was much as though they were in fact committee members.
It is apparent that their objectives were to narrow the area of consideration so that the most stringent MSP measure (40%) could be eliminated. Further, there seem to be other moves related to delaying any regulatory action. This is not surprising as Omega Protein has a lot at stake if new regulations result in harvest restrictions that will have a negative effect on their business. We believe the full range of MSP options should be presented for Board action, particularly in view of published literature recommending much higher levels of breeding stock being necessary for forage species (up to 70% MSP).
Finally, something else is beginning to surface that should have a direct bearing on decisions made about forage abundance. For some time now the New England area has reported a lack of forage fish, menhaden being only one of them. This past year the most prevalent complaint was the poor catch of striped bass, with comments to the effect that 2010 was the worst in recent memory. A survey conducted by Stripers Forever verified the general feeling that things were going downhill rapidly. During 2009, local research in the Chesapeake Bay area revealed unusually large numbers of large migratory stripers in the Bay. Additionally these large fish were here unusually early. Their capacity to consume menhaden is immense. The same pattern continued thru 2010.
What is significant is that in late 2010 and early 2011, much smaller migratory females joined the large stripers in the Bay. What is of concern is that the ratio of females to males is 4-5 times larger than historical values, and the ratio is climbing with time. The most logical reason for this observed phenomenon is the lack of forage. This does not bode well for striper abundance, and suggests that the Mid Atlantic region is going in the same direction as New England
This situation needs immediate attention by fishery managers and their scientific advisors .The forage base has collapsed to some degree, not only for menhaden, but also for anchovies. Does this presage another crash of stripers in the Chesapeake Bay, which could affect the entire East Coast (75% of stripers spawn in the Bay).
It is time for action by the ASMFC. They must decide whether we will have fish in the water or oil and fish meal from the factory.