Bunker Down – New Science Shows Overfishing of Menhaden, Need for More Conservative Management

Menhaden Overfishing by Omega ProteinThe “most important fish in the sea” is about to get some long overdue respect.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted on May 5th to consider new, more conservative ways to manage the fishery for menhaden, a prey fish important to striped bass and many other predators in Chesapeake Bay and up and down the east coast from Maine to North Carolina.  The action came after the commission heard the confounding results of a new stock assessment that concludes “not overfished” and “no overfishing,” despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The biological benchmarks used to assess the condition of the menhaden population were called into question by an independent peer review panel, which recommended to the ASMFC that it adopt alternative targets and limits associated with higher abundance and fishing mortality rates that better account for predator needs.  The commission then voted on a motion to charge its technical advisors to develop new, more conservative “reference points” to use in future management decisions and it passed unanimously.

“We have been arguing for years that menhaden are not being managed responsibly, that abundance is low, and that it’s harming predators and degrading the ecosystem,” says Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) and a member of the interstate menhaden advisory panel.   “We are very pleased that the ASMFC is taking this crucial step toward enacting a more conservative approach to menhaden, one that takes into account its vital role in the coastal ecosystem.”

Menhaden Abundance

A False Impression of Stock Health

The 2010 Menhaden Stock Assessment Report’s status determination of “not overfished” and “no overfishing,” it turns out, is only accurate “relative to the current reference points,” according to the review panel.  The assessment, in fact, is full of negative indicators as to resource health, indicators that are highly descriptive of a menhaden population that is low and incapable of replenishing itself.  Among the assessment’s findings:

Population abundance of age 1+ fish has been declining since the mid-1980s and today  is at an all-time low (covering the period 1955-2008)

Recruitment – that is, the number of juvenile fish produced that survive to enter the adult population – has been poor for over two decades, less than 1/3 the level in the 1970s and early ’80s

The fishing mortality rate on age 3 fish and older, the spawning population, is 65-69%, making it unlikely that most adult menhaden have a chance to spawn more than once, if at all

Fecundity, or egg production, from the current spawning population is less than 10% that of an un-fished population

Fishing mortality is near the overfishing threshold.  Given uncertainty in the estimate of fishing mortality, there is a “significant probability” that overfishing occurred in 2008, as it has in 32 out of the last 53 years, including 1999, 2002 and 2006.

The Review Panel’s report and recommendations make it clear the ASMFC is getting a false impression of stock health because its current targets for fishing mortality and spawning production are too high and too low, respectively.  The commission’s Menhaden Management Board responded by asking the Menhaden Technical Committee, working with the Multi-Species Committee (which includes scientists from the striped bass and other species committees), to develop a range of new reference points that better protect the spawning stock and achieve higher abundance; that account for predator needs; and that consider how targets and limits are set for other forage fish similar to menhaden.  The committees are to report back by the August 2010 meeting, if possible, with a range of management strategies to achieve the new goals, at which time the ASMFC would begin the process of implementing new management measures.

A year ago (June 2009) NCMC presented the ASMFC with a detailed scientific paper, “Ecological Reference Points for Atlantic Menhaden,” laying out the need for new targets and associated fishing limits for menhaden that take into account its critical role as prey, placing more emphasis on increased abundance (the number of fish in the water) and more fully taking predation into account when considering mortality from fishing.  Our paper played an important role in persuading many commissioners and technical advisors of the need to change the way menhaden are being managed.  The new stock assessment and peer review panel report have reinforced this need, to the point where change, for the good of menhaden and its many predators, is now imminent.  We will continue to work closely with the commission over the coming months to make sure those changes are implemented.

Article thanks to Ken Hinman, President of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation.

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