By Richen Brame
Coastal Conservation Association
Atlantic Fisheries Director
May 17, 2012
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Technical Committee (TC) and Stock Assessment Committee (SAC) process is supposed to be a simple one that allows the members, who come from state agencies, federal agencies and academia, to do the technical work necessary to manage marine fisheries. One primary object of this process is to allow only qualified, independent scientists to populate the committees, who can be expected to produce results that are not biased towards any one sector or another. Such scientists insulated from the grind of fishery politics are the very engine on which marine fisheries management runs.
The Commissioners may be the drivers, but the TC and SAC folks provide the horsepower. This process can quickly fall apart if it appears that someone with an agenda is sitting on the committee. Earlier this week, I witnessed just such an event, perhaps the most egregious I’ve seen in attending TC and SAC meetings for 13 years.
To set the scene, the Menhaden Stock Assessment Subcommittee and Technical Committee met to determine what information will go into an assessment update, essentially the data from 2009-2011 which was collected since the last benchmark assessment. As is well known, menhaden are undergoing overfishing and the Board recently set new fishing mortality reference points that are more conservative than the old reference points. To end overfishing, the Board is currently developing Amendment 2 to the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic menhaden, which will reduce menhaden harvest for all harvesters.
As is also well known, this will be the first time the menhaden reduction industry – Omega Protein in Reedville, Virginia – will have to operate under a quota and will have to limit its harvest to end overfishing.
It was no surprise, then, that Omega Protein hired two pre-eminent stock assessment scientists to represent them at the TC and SAC meeting. Many groups, including Coastal Conservation Association, had representatives there to observe the proceedings. But the Omega representatives went a step further and interacted freely with the Committee. One of them spoke more than any member of the stock assessment committee. At one point, he essentially led the discussion on whatsensitivity analyses were appropriate for the assessment.
This type of interaction is out of bounds, and it casts doubt on the validity of these proceedings. It threatens to make a mockery of the process and transport it back to the dark days when reduction industry representatives controlled both the Menhaden Management Board and the Technical Committee.
The two scientists hired by Omega are some of the best-known stock assessment experts in the world, and their opinions should be available to the SAC and TC, but in a controlled fashion that is fair to all. What the Omega representatives contributed at that meeting may very well have been useful or valuable, but the manner in which they presented it was entirely inappropriate, and tainted the legitimacy of the meeting. Regardless of what they said, the appearance of impropriety cannot be avoided. As paid representatives of Omega Protein, they are at that meeting for one purpose and one purpose only – to represent Omega’s interests. Would they bother to attend such a meeting if the stock was not undergoing overfishing and Omega was not faced with reductions in harvest for the first time in its history?
I think not.
The ASMFC currently has guidelines on public participation under development, but those will not be approved until October. The Committee Chair and staff person are there to facilitate discussion, not referee who gets to speak and who doesn’t. In the meantime, conservationists are left to wonder about a process that appears tainted. As has happened in the past with this highly political fishery, it appears that the ASMFC is allowing the fox to guard the henhouse. Again.
Conservationists and recreational anglers have come too far in our efforts to protect a critical forage base to let these machinations go unchallenged. The ASMFC must rein in Omega Protein and not allow it to gain control of the menhaden management process. Its failure to do so risks destroying any trust the public has in its ability to manage our marine resources.