In his op-ed Conservation is Essential to Save the Striper (Vineyard Gazette, Oct. 31), author Dick Russell suggests that recreational and commercial fishermen stand at odds when it comes to striped bass conservation. He claims that commercial striped bass fishermen from Massachusetts and menhaden fishermen from Virginia are obstacles in the way of stronger protections for striped bass. To support these allegations, Mr. Russell makes several misleading claims regarding stripers, Atlantic menhaden, and the relationship between the two species.
Despite Mr. Russell’s bleak portrayal of the striped bass stock, the species is widely considered a management success story. Since the collapse of striper populations in the 1980s, the stock has experienced significant rebuilding, increasing from nine million fish in 1982 to over 70 million in 2004. But since 2006, managers have seen a consistent decline in spawning stock biomass and recruitment. This is understandably of concern to recreational fishermen like Mr. Russell, who account for a larger portion of the species’ harvest than the commercial sector. Now in light of recent assessment data, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering reductions in the striped bass quota.
Yet Mr. Russell distracts from this ongoing, science-based discussion to lay blame for this decline at the feet of the commercial menhaden fishery. This accusation of a causal link is not original and has been repeatedly disproven. He calls menhaden “the time-honored food of choice” for stripers, though scientists have previously dispelled this myth. In 2007, researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science investigated striped bass predation of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay and found that menhaden represented only about eight per cent of the striped bass diet. Mr. Russell also claims that menhaden numbers have declined by 90 per cent — a statistic first popularized by the Pew Environment Group in 2012. But when Pulitzer Prize-winning group PolitiFact fact checked that figure, experts found that Pew had cherry picked data points that do not accurately represent the past or current status of the menhaden fishery. PolitiFact ultimately deemed their claim “mostly false.”
By linking the mid-Atlantic commercial menhaden fishery to an array of widespread issues across the coast, Mr. Russell ignores a long list of serious environmental conditions that demonstrably play a key role in striped bass and menhaden stock health. In his discussion of mycobacteriosis in the Chesapeake’s striped bass population, for example, Mr. Russell gives no mention to the Bay’s many environmental issues including habitat loss, pollution, contaminants from urban sprawl, changing water temperatures, increasing hypoxic zones, and invasive species.
An extensive study on striped bass populations — the result of years of research by Dr. Bob Wood, Director of NOAA’s Oxford Cooperative Laboratory in Maryland — recently shed new light on the menhaden-striper relationship. The species have cyclical but inverse patterns of high and low population levels. History shows that striped bass will experience several years of booming numbers, while menhaden simultaneously experience several years of reduced population levels, and then vice versa. According to Dr. Wood’s research, the key cause for these changes is a large-scale weather phenomenon named the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation, which brings periods of warmer waters (good for striped bass populations) followed by periods of cooler water (good for menhaden).
This research underscores multiple studies indicating that environmental conditions are the defining factor for these populations. Dr. Wood’s research has become the basis for what many believe is behind the current decline of striped bass. This type of careful analysis is an example of what is needed to achieve effective ecosystem-based protections.
Calls for conservation that use unfounded and anecdotal information and fail to consider environmental factors are based in faith, not science. Similarly, broad unfounded accusations against commercial sectors that portray these job-producing industries as antagonists versus recreational sectors are based in politics, not science.
Any productive discourse on the vital marine fisheries of both New England and the entire East Coast must be supported with factual evidence.
Robert B. Vanasse is executive director of Saving Seafood and Menhaden Fisheries Coalition in Washington, D.C.