Bottom of Food Chain is Top Priority

On behalf of a little baitfish that’s not consumed by humans, it was amazing to witness 350-plus fishermen gathered in a Baltimore hotel conference room on Dec. 14. The 15-member Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) had come together to decide, at long last, whether to regulate the annual harvest of Atlantic menhaden. Over 150 people from eight states, including 18 from four Massachusetts fishing organizations, were on hand. So were dozens of workers from Virginia’s Omega Protein Corporation, whose “reduction” fishery in the Chesapeake Bay accounts for 85 per cent of all the menhaden landings.

Menhaden are a vital link in the ocean food chain, a major food source for striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds. As menhaden numbers have plummeted, striped bass are suffering from malnutrition and bacterial disease. Omega Protein’s is the largest fishery on the Atlantic coast and, until now their political clout had forestalled any effective menhaden management. Scooping up thousands of metric tons of menhaden to be cooked and crushed into fish oil and livestock feed, the 125-year-old company’s take is primarily responsible for a 90 per cent population decline in recent decades.

This year, after ASMFC scientists finally declared menhaden overfished and that overfishing is continuing, a record 128,333 comments flooded the agency. The majority of these called for cutting the allowable catch in half. In Baltimore, Massachusetts fisheries director David Pierce set the meeting’s tone by declaring that “ecological objectives should be first and foremost.” The initial vote then shifted the management regime toward achieving maximum spawning potential; as things had stood, 65 per cent of the menhaden were being removed before they’d had even one chance to spawn.

Shortly before noon, as the board members took up the question of whether and how much to reduce landings, dozens of fishermen left their seats and stood to face them, holding aloft yellow signs listing their home state above the words “I support Menhaden Conservation!” They were quickly joined by Omega Protein men wearing union T-shirts, and the atmosphere was tense. The company has claimed that any curtailing of its catch would mean two of its eight remaining factory ships going into drydock, with accompanying loss of jobs. This is despite revenues of $78 million in Omega’s latest quarterly report, the highest in its history. “This is not about jobs, but about the fish!” someone in the crowd shouted. At one point, an ASMFC official threatened to clear the room.

While Virginia fishery officials tried at every turn to postpone action or keep it minimal, Massachusetts led the charge toward ecosystem-based management. David Pierce introduced a motion calling for a 25 per cent reduction in landings. Given uncertainty about the latest stock assessment, a compromise 20 per cent reduction was eventually voted in — which will give Omega Protein a quota of 170,800 metric tons. That, most conservationists agreed, doesn’t go far enough — but it’s considered a big step toward curtailing an industry that’s been unlimited for decades.

“It’s good,” said Patrick Paquette of the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association, “because given the high menhaden landings in 2012, it’s more like a 28 per cent reduction from that. A year ago, I thought we’d get maybe a 10 to 15 per cent reduction.” Bill Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called what happened “a tremendous move in the right direction, though they had plenty of reasons to go further. These [Omega] guys have a standard m.o. of confuse-and-delay, while they keep hoping for a good year class. But guess what? They haven’t seen one for 20 years.” Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation was also pleased with an outcome showing that “menhaden are not just a commodity, but have an ecosystem role.”

But Jim Price of the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation pointed out that the measure fails to address the fact that striped bass historically feed on juvenile menhaden, which have made up 43 per cent of Omega’s catch over the past six years. If that trend continues, stripers will continue to feed heavily on blue crab and white perch in their Chesapeake spawning grounds, and show diminished amounts of body fat in the fall. “You won’t believe what bad shape the Chesapeake Bay is in. With the 2011 big year-class of striped bass, a lot of those fish are stunted in growth,” Mr. Price said.

H. Bruce Franklin, whose book The Most Important Fish in the Sea raised national awareness about the menhaden, said simply of Omega Protein: “This is an industry that should not be allowed to exist. There is no rational justification for it.”

The big day in Baltimore marked a start, but whether it will result in an improvement for the menhaden situation remains very much an open question. The next stock assessment won’t happen until 2014. Until then, the managers voted to let Omega Protein continue to grab 85 per cent of the allocated fish, while bait fisheries in all of the other states split the rest. “This is just wrong,” Wellfleet fisherman John Duane said afterward. “Because you’ve got somebody pillaging a resource for so long, they get rewarded for their huge recent landings?”

Dick Russell, a summer Island fisherman, is a longtime ocean conservationist and the author of Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.