Menhaden Muddle #23
By Charlie Hutchinson
At the last meeting of the ASM FC Menhaden Management Board, the process for essentially rewriting the Fishery Management Plan was initiated. While the Board never succinctly defined it’s objectives for the changes, during the dialog it was pretty clear that the Board had concluded that it’s priority for the changes in the management plan was centered on providing adequate forage for predators. It follows, then, that the Board was looking to a multispecies approach to determine adequacy of menhaden stock to meet predator needs. It is also clear that such a program will not come about quickly. Given the recognition that menhaden abundance is insufficient to meet all the demands, the Board embarked on an interim program to respond to that need in the short term. The need is now, but the time frame for the desired solution is an unknown.
So what can the Board do, and what will the new program look like? The first step is to define new reference points with which to determine where stock levels should be compared to where they are. The objective is to increase the breeding stock (age 2+) from the present level of 9% to 15% of an unfished stock. To achieve this growth, the commercial harvest of menhaden must be reduced. As of this writing, the actual reduction percentage required to deal with that portion of the stock responsible for reproduction has not been pinned down.
One of the problems confronting the fishery scientists is that the measuring stick in the current, and presumably in the revised plan, is fecundity. Fecundity is the fancy word for the ability to produce eggs for reproduction. The difficulty in using this criterion comes about by the fact that reproductive success cannot be directly related in any reliable way to the number of reproducing fish. However, one should reasonably expect that if the reproductive stock is increased, reproduction quantities should respond in a similar fashion. History tells us that this logic cannot always be counted on to enlarge the stock level. Given that level of uncertainty, there is a need to be very conservative in expressing the degree to which the harvest level must be reduced. In addition, given the fact that there are now not enough menhaden to satisfy predator demand, the additional numbers of fish made available by reducing harvest will result in even more consumption by predators, thus impeding to some degree the restoration of the stock. All of this seems to indicate a substantial reduction in harvest will be required to achieve the objective.
With new reference points should come new target levels to keep the program objectives on track. Recent discussions have noted that the failure to manage to the existing target levels has had a marked negative effect on actual stock abundance. So, a new target level in the revised program will need more teeth. Most feel that a hard cap or coast wide quota will be required in order to obtain the desired results. If adopted it will be a first for this species. No doubt this will be met with a high level of resistance from both the bait and reduction industries. How to deal with this problem in the face of the beleaguered bait segment of the harvest constitutes a very significant problem for the Menhaden Management Board.