For centuries, probably millennia, the small, oily fish known as Atlantic menhaden have been the protein-filled food of choice for striped bass and many other large species in our waters. Fishermen call them pogeys or bunker, often using them as bait to entice stripers to their lines. Menhaden were once so abundant that early Americans spoke of them swimming in schools upwards of 25 miles long. Today, more menhaden are pulled from the sea — between a quarter and half a billion pounds a year — than any other fish in the continental U.S., primarily to be ground up into fish meal for aquaculture and fish oil for vitamin supplements. Eighty per cent of those menhaden are netted by a single Virginia-based company, Omega Protein, the last of the “reduction industry” fleet. And the toll has been huge. Since 1983, the fish’s numbers have declined by a staggering 88 per cent.
Which means that the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, where menhaden play a crucial role as a filter feeder on algae, is suffering. And that increasing numbers of emaciated and bacterially-diseased striped bass are going hungry. And that bait fishermen, who provide menhaden for lobster pots and anglers, are hurting economically.
That’s the message being sounded at a series of public hearings currently being held in states across the Eastern seaboard, leading toward a Dec. 14 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) where stronger regulations on the allowable catch of menhaden are finally being considered. On Tuesday night in Bourne, some 30 residents came to voice their concerns and listen to Massachusetts fisheries officials describe “a sense of urgency.” This was somewhat heartening, considering that the ASMFC has long resisted taking any action that would affect Omega Protein’s bottom line.
Unfortunately, the options on the table didn’t include any area closures to protect menhaden during their spawning season. All who spoke at the hearing agreed that better monitoring is needed of what’s been called the most important fish in the sea. But the ASMFC’s scientific number-crunchers, who admit that overfishing is occurring, still won’t come out and state flatly that the menhaden are definitely being overfished. They say they’re uncertain of the data in their latest stock assessment model, thus making recommendations of specific catch reductions problematic in achieving their “rebuilding targets.”
So the public is being asked to consider various criteria (stock status, resilience, life history, ecological importance and so on) in support of cutbacks in landings somewhere between 10 and 50 per cent. As Dean Clark of the 18,000-member Stripers Forever organization pointed out, menhaden are considered twice as valuable as a forage fish that’s left in the ocean ($11 billion, according to studies) than what is generated by the reduction industry. Mr. Clark supports the 50 per cent cutback, although representatives of Massachusetts recreational and commercial striped bass associations questioned whether that was politically doable, while most everyone concurred that a larger quota should be set aside for the baitfish industry.
Still, the allocation question — and a confusing regulatory scheme — often overshadow the fact that the menhaden are in such dire straits as to threaten the future of the entire Atlantic ecosystem. The diets of dozens of predators — from stripers and bluefish to dolphins, humpback whales, ospreys and blue crab — are dependent upon a menhaden population at its lowest level ever recorded, and still being harvested at more than 200,000 metric tons a year. A single corporation is responsible for most of that, a vast protein extraction machine that supports few American jobs and makes more than half its sales on exports to the growing international aquaculture industry. But Omega Protein is politically powerful, enough to have long influenced marine scientists and cozy up to ASMFC officials, not to mention its substantial contributions to Virginia politicians who have threatened to vote to pull their state out of the regulatory compact. (Their state legislature governs Virginia’s fisheries). Should that happen, the federal government would be forced to intervene and could shut down Omega’s fleet and reduction factories, a move likely to bring the courts into the fight. The question is, how much damage will be done to the ocean’s ecology in the meantime?
As the renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle said recently: “Menhaden are to the Atlantic as krill are to Antarctic waters. All along the food chain, the cycling of critical compounds continues. The wholesale extraction of marine life globally, especially in the past 50 years, has disrupted these pathways to the detriment of the entire system. The ocean is in trouble, and therefore so are we . . . . Why is it taking us so long to value fish for something more than as commodities?”
Public comment on the ASMFC’s Draft Amendment 2 to the Interstate Menhaden Fishery Management Plan is being taken in writing through Nov. 16, for submission to Mike Waine (firstname.lastname@example.org). More information is available at asmfc.org.
Vineyard recreational fisherman Dick Russell is the author of Striper Wars (Island Press).