Lewes — Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission officials and fishermen agree: Menhaden have been overfished for 32 of the last 54 years, and their current population is at the lowest level on record.
Stakeholders are trying to determine the best methods, rules and regulations to adopt that would give menhaden a chance to bounce back.
“Millions of dollars are at stake,” said Capt. Paul Eidman, a Sandy Hook, N.J.-based commercial fisherman and member of Menhaden Defenders, an organization dedicated to restoring the fish to sustainable levels.
Speaking at a Sept. 26 public meeting, Eidman said menhaden, a forage fish, play an important role in feeding larger game fish such as striped bass, tuna, weakfish, marine mammals and several bird species.
He said recreational fishing businesses and the businesses they support are already being adversely affected because there are fewer menhaden.
Fishermen and others concerned about fish conservation say menhaden are the most important fish in the world and their ever-decreasing numbers are causing a negative ripple throughout the region.
Menhaden Defenders, Coalition to Protect Fisheries and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which held the meeting to hear comments about proposed regulations, agree about many things, chief among them is that the menhaden population has declined by 88 percent in the last three decades.
The commission is hearing from organizations and individuals as it tries to determine how best to boost the menhaden population without being overly restrictive or too liberal about catch quantities. The commission is considering four options based on 2010 levels: To make no changes; a 20 percent reduction of total harvest to a total of 165,850 metric tons; a 37 percent reduction for a total harvest of 143,200 metric tons; and a 45 percent reduction yielding a total harvest of 124,400 metric tons.
Pressures on menhaden are numerous – they’re caught commercially to be used as bait, and they’re also caught commercially to produce omega-3 fish oil products for human consumption.
Commission records show more than 183,000 metric tons of menhaden were landed in 2010 by Omega Protein in Reedville, Va., the only fish oil processing company in the region.
Fishing records show Mid-Atlantic region states – New York through coastal Maryland – commercially landed more than 23 metric tons of menhaden for bait.
Recreational fishermen catch menhaden to use as bait. Because the fish are used while at sea, the Marine Recreational Information Program does not have an accurate number of how many are caught. The program estimates the average annual harvest since 1981 is 126 metric tons, and zero metric tons in 2009, the latest year statistics are available.
Power plants decimate fishery
In addition to fish that are caught, estimates vary on the number of menhaden and other species killed when they are sucked through water-cooling systems at electric power plants.
“They’re giant aquatic death machines,” said Richard Schneider of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Bristol, Pa.-based organization concerned about regional and local issues that threaten water quality and the ecosystems of the Delaware River and its watershed.
“You need to consider these massive kills,” said Schneider, one of about 40 people who attended the meeting at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Control’s Lewes facility.
He said two units of the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey draw 3 billion gallons of water per day through the cooling system; in that water are thousands of fish.
“Salem kills more fish than are commercially caught. If these facilities didn’t kill fish we’d have more than enough,” Schneider told the commission.
Roy Parks, a recreational fisherman of Rehoboth Beach, said the Virginia-based omega-3 processor, uses airplanes to spot menhaden. He said Virginia doesn’t set a quota on the fish because of revenue the state receives from the commercial fishery.
Parks asked which is more important: using menhaden to produce cat food, body lotion and bait for lobster pots or preserving fish for broader purposes.
Capt. Patrick Paquette, a recreational fishing advocate from Massachusetts, said the commission’s proposed changes do not address the number of menhaden caught by commercial bait fishing ships operating in federal waters – three miles or more from a state’s coast.
Paquette said many of the 200-foot-long bait ships work off the coast of New Jersey and haul their catch to Massachusetts, where the fish are offloaded and transported to Maine for use in lobster pots.
He said the omega-3 and commercial bait industry are catching tens of millions of pounds of menhaden and don’t accurately report how much they catch.
“We can’t pretend this doesn’t exist,” Paquette said.
The commission is accepting public comment through Wednesday, Nov. 2.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is made up of 15 Atlantic coast states in recognition that fish do not adhere to political boundaries.
The commission serves as a deliberative body, coordinating sustainable use, conservation and management of shared near-shore fishery resources. Commission member states are Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.
The commission’s next public hearing is Monday, Oct. 3, at Maine Department of Marine Resources, The Yarmouth Log Cabin, 196 Main St., Yarmouth, Maine.
For additional information, go to www.ASMFC.org.