Former secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Urges Long-Term sustainability of Menhaden

Little fish has an Outsized Impact on State’s Economy
Written by
John A. Hughes
The former secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
Originally published by Delaware Online here.

Visit the Herring Point surf fishing area at Cape Henlopen State Park one weekend this time of year and you’ll begin to understand the recreational and economic importance of the lowly menhaden fish.

The Lewes fishing beach is often as packed with vehicles as a Rehoboth Beach outlet on a rainy Saturday, and the big lure for these fishermen is big fish: blues and striped bass, among others. These prized predator fish are attracted to the area by schools of Atlantic menhaden, a small, silvery species that has been called “the most important fish in the sea” by scientists, fishermen and environmentalists alike (a title notably introduced by H. Bruce Franklin in his book on the menhaden’s historic importance to marine ecology and coastal populations).

But times have changed, and the menhaden stocks are declining – fast.

While schools of menhaden have been spotted in Delaware Bay this year, the overall size of the population along the coast is at record low levels. Scientists affiliated with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the 15-state regulatory body that oversees management of the species, estimate the menhaden population is now only 8 percent of its historic levels, with 10 percent of its former spawning capacity.

Scientists found that menhaden have been subject to sustained overfishing, with harvests that may be threatening the species’ ability to provide enough forage for all the other fish and mammals that rely on it.

While it’s no prize trophy for a sport fisherman, menhaden is a critical link in the marine ecosystem, feeding large predatory species including striped bass, bluefish, tuna, cod and swordfish, as well as haddock, halibut and king mackerel. The fish is also an important bait for crabs and lobsters. Menhaden also feed ospreys, pelicans, loons, sea turtles and other marine mammals and birds.

On Sept. 26, the ASMFC will conduct a hearing in Lewes to solicit public comments on possible new commercial harvest limits for menhaden (known locally as “ bunker”).

Lewes is an apt place for a hearing on this important issue. Fifty years ago, the city was the largest fishing port in the country thanks to a thriving menhaden industry. Then the local bunker population fell off, and so did the industry that relied on it. Now, a single corporate fleet based in Reedville, Va., nets 80 percent of the remaining menhaden catch. Using huge purse seines guided by spotter planes, this fleet accounts for the removal of up to half a billion pounds of menhaden each year from the Atlantic.

The remaining economic benefit Delaware receives from menhaden through recreational and commercial fishing would be jeopardized if the population continues to decline.

The impact of this decline on striped bass and other predator species – fish that stimulate so much of Delaware’s coastal economy – could be significant. A striped bass diet analysis conducted by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources over the past five years found that Atlantic menhaden was the most important food stripers consume. Recreational fishermen caught over 191,000 pounds of stripers last year in Delaware. Menhaden is also the bait of choice for Delaware crabbers.

ASMFC has recognized that it must take action to stop the overfishing of menhaden, and is turning to the public for comments on various options for managing the commercial harvest. These options range from maintaining the status quo, which would further threaten the species, to requiring significant harvest restrictions.

As former secretary of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, I prefer harvest options that will lead to a recovery of the menhaden population, without excessive impact on commercial harvesters, including those bait wholesalers who provide menhaden to crab and lobster fishermen.

The harvest should be curtailed to allow a significant increase in spawning rates – the equivalent of at least 30 percent of the menhaden’s historic reproductive capacity. Many scientists believe that 40 percent capacity or more should be the target for forage fish like menhaden, but 30 percent would be an appropriate interim target that would ease pressure on the stock; 15 percent should be set as the bare minimum or “threshold” level.

In the past, the consequences of overfishing have been predictably tragic: the disappearance of the wild oyster, salmon, and other industries. Leading science has shown the need for caution when managing forage species, not only because of the vast and intricate marine system they support, but also because thousands of jobs and an entire fishing culture depend on robust forage stocks.

I urge the public to support the long-term sustainability of this important little fish at the ASMFC public hearing at the Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control facility at 901 Pilottown Road in Lewes at 7 p.m. on Sept. 26.

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