ConservationSaltwater Fishing

Bringing Back Menhaden

Whether you call them bunker, pogies or menhaden, this small forage fish plays a giant role in the marine ecosystem. For years menhaden have been overfished, leaving the prey that feed on them to forage for something else. Finally it seems the tide is turning and more protection could soon help these valuable baitfish recover.

On August 2nd, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted to send a range of options for rebuilding menhaden out for public comment. Draft Addendum V to the Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan, approved by an overwhelming majority at the 15-state commission’s summer meeting, raises the overfishing threshold while proposing new rebuilding targets, all of which will substantially increase menhaden abundance.

The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on these so-called “reference points” at hearings all along the East Coast this fall, as well as through written comments. The ASMFC will formally adopt the new population targets and fishing limits in November, after which it will develop appropriate management measures, e.g., quotas and allocations, for review and adoption in early 2012.

“It’s an historic moment and it’s been a long time coming,” said Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC). “Finally, the ASMFC is recommending strong action to end years of depletion, action that will restore this critical forage fish to its rightful place as ‘the most important fish in the sea’.

Hinman testified for NCMC at the August meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, after working for months with commissioners and the Menhaden Plan Development Team to include conservative rebuilding targets as options in the draft addendum. (See Hinman’s article “Aim High.”)

The addendum sets a new overfishing threshold of 15 percent of the spawning potential of an unfished population (or MSP), which would be roughly double the current threshold. Years of heavy exploitation, primarily by the reduction fishery operated by Omega Protein, have reduced the menhaden population’s productivity to a dangerously low 8 percent of its potential, according to a 2010 stock assessment.

The Houston, Texas-based Omega Protein Corporation operates a fish processing facility in Reedville, Virginia, along the Chesapeake Bay. Omega Protein claims to be North America’s largest manufacturer of fishmeal and organic fish solubles with revenues of $168 million in 2010 through the use of 49 fishing vessels, 34 spotter planes and four different processing plants.

The ASMFC addendum proposes that management measures be implemented to achieve target levels of either 20, 30 or 40 percent of MSP, with the higher targets more in line with the standards set for other key forage fish.

“If you care about menhaden, striped bass, bluefin tuna, osprey and other seabirds, the Chesapeake Bay, or the health of east coast fisheries in general, you need to give your support to the most conservative rebuilding options now being offered,” says Hinman. “Opportunities like this, one that could have such far reaching effects, don’t come along often.”

A notice of public hearings and where to send written comments will be out soon. Sign up for Email Action Network alerts and check NCMC’s website, www.savethefish.org, for more information as it becomes available.