A Big Win for Forage Fish

In a move praised by both commercial and conservation interests, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) agreed Tuesday to a ten-percent increase to the total allowable catch (TAC) for Atlantic menhaden. The new TAC increased from about 170,000 tons to nearly 188,000 tons for the 2015 fishing season—which begins next week—and the 2016 season. The ASFMC also pledged to use menhaden’s role in the marine ecosystem as a guide for future management structures and to review how the TAC is divided, potentially looking to allocate bait fishermen a larger share.

A school of menhaden
Schools of menhaden can number in the millions!

The new regulations have been praised from all sides, and are considered a worthy compromise among commercial fishers, conservationists, and regulators. Fishers succeeded in increasing the TAC, allowing for more opportunity and jobs, while the pledge to move to a more ecosystem-based approach is a win for conservationists.

While Connecticut has a very small menhaden fishery—allocated just one quarter of one percent of the TAC—CFE/Save the Sound has been hard at work to protect forage fish and understands their value to the health Long Island Sound’s marine ecosystem, and those of our bays and coastal rivers. Menhaden, Atlantic herring, and other forage fish are essential sources of protein for many important commercial and recreational fish such as tuna, striped bass, and bluefish, as well as whales and sea birds. Robust stocks of ocean herring also take pressure off our stocks of river herring (aka alewives), blueback herring, and shad. Our goal has always been to manage forage fish to sustain, support, and grow not only successful commercial industries but also those species that depend on them. Forage fish are essential to the overall health and improvement of our marine ecosystem. To learn more about allies, visit the Herring Alliance. You can support our continued efforts here.

Menhaden fished using a purse seine (photo: Dave Harp)
Menhaden are typically fished using a purse seine (photo: Dave Harp)

Menhaden are bony and oily fish, difficult for humans to eat but packed with protein for predators and good for fertilizing. They are in the same genetic family as Atlantic herring, shad, and sardines. Their historical range—which stretched from Florida to Maine—has been significantly reduced in the modern era. Most menhaden fishing now happens in the mid-Atlantic region, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay.

The menhaden fishery is split between the reduction and bait industries. Being too bony to eat efficiently, menhaden are processed (or reduced) into fishmeal and fish oil products, fertilizers, animal feed, and more. Virginia is also the only state yet to ban the reduction menhaden industry, and is currently allocated roughly eighty-five percent of the menhaden TAC.

Omega Protein, operating out of Reedville, Virginia, leads the reduction industry. As a result of the 2012 TAC reduction, Omega claimed it was forced to keep two vessels out of the water and lay-off forty-five workers. However, since the cut went into effect in January 2013, Omega has reported record profits and its stock price has more than doubled to match previous all-time highs.

Distribution of the 2012 TAC for Menhaden. These  numbers will increase 10% for 2015 and 2016.
Distribution of the 2012 TAC for Menhaden. These numbers will increase 10% for 2015 and 2016.

Eleven eastern seaboard states operate in the bait industry. Menhaden is used as chum for recreational and commercial finfishing, as well as in lobster and crab pots. Historically, the bait industry made up more than twenty-five percent of the menhaden fishery. But the ASMFC allocated it only fifteen percent of the 2012 TAC. It has been argued that bait fishers were disproportionately affected by the reduction and efforts have been made to increase states quotas, particularly by New Jersey, and by states with low-impact gear, such as Florida’s cast net fishery. The ASFMC also pledged yesterday to review how the TAC is divided, potentially looking to allocate bait fishermen a larger share.

Two years ago, the ASMFC reduced the TAC by twenty percent in response to a stock assessment showing menhaden at historic low levels and experiencing overfishing. Following a new (and generally considered more thorough) assessment last year, scientists have actually found the stock’s biomass (the weight of the stock) is higher than previously thought, with more older and heavier fish out there. The actual total number of menhaden has declined in recent years however, which causes concern over the stock’s ability to support the commercial industry and provide forage for predator fish, whales, and birds.

We look forward to continue working with our allies up and down the coast to protect the ability for forage fish like menhaden and herring to fulfill their ecosystem role while supporting a strong commercial industry. To learn more about our allies, visit the Herring Alliance. And you can support our continued efforts here. Join us today!

Posted by Tyler Archer, fisheries program lead for CFE/Save the Sound

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