Fishy Circumstances Muddle Menhaden’s Fate

From the Baltimore Sun, July 31, 2010
Regulators do little to help important Chesapeake Bay fish
By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

It doesn’t take a crystal ball filled with filthy Chesapeake Bay water to realize that when it comes to protecting menhaden, the folks charged with doing so aren’t likely to do a blessed thing in time for the 2011 commercial fishing season.

Just as sure as Omega Protein has trawlers and huge nets to scoop up menhaden — a keystone bay species and the favored food of striped bass — the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is poised to do absolutely nothing during Tuesday’s 90-minute meeting despite a vote to do something almost three months ago.

That’s right. Nothing.

I guess commissioners are still glued to the video of their executive director, Vince O’Shea, providing a ringing endorsement of Omega’s practices on Omega’s website, using words such as “healthy” and “abundant” to describe a fish that appears to be anything but.

Sure, money is tight. But can O’Shea really be both the cop on the beat and a pitchman for the very company he’s supposed to be regulating?

To quote Will Ferrell, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

I know ASMFC is a vigilant watchdog that never buckles under pressure, never trades votes and never plays politics. But why does it appear as though the commission has a serious case of foot-dragging when it comes to protecting menhaden?

Let’s face it: When they want to, the commissioners move with the speed of frat boys at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

With just a few weeks’ notice, they held an emergency meeting to discuss the plight of lobster in the waters of southern New England. And commissioners made time for a powwow about O’Shea’s star turn in the video spotlight. But when it comes to menhaden, it’s like they’re hauling Tony Siragusa around a marathon dance floor.

Red lights and sirens went off earlier this year when experts taking a fresh look at the menhaden population came to the conclusion that it has been overfished in 32 of the past 53 years, including three, if not four, of the past 10 years; that the fish is at an all-time low abundance; and that it is being exploited by trawlers out of Virginia during its best reproductive years.

ASMFC representatives sat up and took notice. They voted unanimously to have their scientists come up with new biological benchmarks as early as this month that would take into account factors such as predation that might affect the stock.

Phil Kline of Greenpeace called the vote “a step in the right direction.”

Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, called it “the right outcome.”

Bill Goldsborough, an ASMFC member and a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, recalled, “We came out of that meeting on cloud nine, thinking, ‘Wow, we’re finally moving.'”

John Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, immediately promised to commit manpower to help get the work done on time and made good on that promise.

Except that it appears no one else ever intended to meet the August date.

Grassy Knoll Exhibit No. 1: The scientists — called the Menhaden Technical Committee — didn’t get around to chatting by phone until July 21. Seems they were waiting for a copy of the minutes so that they would know what to do. But many of them, including committee chairman Rob Latour, were there in May when the motion was made and the vote was taken.

Grassy Knoll Exhibit No. 2: In a June interview with the pro-commercial fishing website Saving Seafood, Brad Spear, ASMFC’s senior coordinator for policy, predicted it would take the technical committee four or five months to complete its work. You can add another six months to write an addendum to the management plan and have a public comment period.

Even then, policy changes might be delayed until after the next stock assessment and peer review. “It will be a long process,” Spear told the publication. FYI, readers, that peer review is scheduled for 2016.

Grassy Knoll Exhibit No. 3: A recent study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science downplays menhaden’s role as a filter feeder in improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. The study dispels the image of the menhaden as a vacuum cleaner removing impurities and suggests the fish is more like a strainer, able to remove only certain-sized particles. Further, the amount of impurities removed by menhaden might be offset by menhaden poop, the study warns.

One of the authors of the study is Rob Latour, a VIMS professor and, yes, chairman of the Menhaden Technical Committee.

To recap: While it debates the future of commercial menhaden fishing, ASMFC lets its executive director moonlight as a video cheerleader for the only remaining menhaden processor. Commission experts pay no attention to the commission’s own August due date until the last minute and then hold an “invitation-only” teleconference and conclude they can’t possibly be ready for prime time. They slip that information into the agenda packet for this week’s ASMFC meeting late last week, hoping no one would notice.

We noticed.

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