ASMFC takes historic 1st step to protect menhaden
“Now, the hard work begins.”
That was the assessment of Lynn Fegley, a Maryland fisheries biologist just moments after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted overwhelmingly last night to send a suite of options to protect menhaden and rebuild the population out for public comment.
Not to say it was a walk in the park to get from the tentative steps in 2005 to cap commercial menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay to admitting menhaden are in trouble to actually doing something to protect the resource.
The decisive action was greeted with grins and applause from audience members, many of whom had sat through years of hearings, hoping for the best but always going home empty handed.
“We got what we wanted. Now the public will have a chance to do something for menhaden,” said Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. “They’ve given us the opportunity to put a lot more menhaden back into the water.”
Menhaden, a small, oily fish, is a primary food for striped bass and other fish. About 40 percent of the East Coast population comes from the Chesapeake Bay and about 80 percent of the coast’s striped bass start their lives in the same waters.
But a company called Omega Protein Corp. targets the fish in the Virginia portion of the bay. They are ground up at a plant in Reedville, Va., and used to make diet supplements, pet food and cosmetics. A second commercial industry targets menhaden to use as bait for lobster and blue crabs.
Menhaden have been overfished in 32 of the last 54 years. The stock is at its lowest point in recorded history.
“Draft Addendum 5,” as the document is called, will be coming soon to a public hearing room in states from Maine to Florida. The vote to send it on its way was 15 in favor (including Maryland), one opposed (Virginia) and one abstention (the Potomac River Fisheries Commission).
The debate in a hotel ballroom in Alexandria, Va., lasted a little over two hours and included attempts to limit the scope of what the public would be allowed to comment on. The five options ranged from maintaining the status quo—an action that would almost certainly continue overfishing—to reducing the harvest by as much as 45 percent from 2010 levels.
New Hampshire Commission Doug Grout attempted to narrow the options to two: status quo or a 23 percent reduction, saying he wanted to streamline the process to get a speedier outcome.
That proposal appeared to be gaining momentum until Maryland representative Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, began a careful recitation of the history of management and what has happened since the adoption of the first amendment of the management plan a decade ago.
“The stocks have done nothing but trend downward,” he said. “As stewards of this resource it behooves us to turn it around.”
New Jersey Commissioner Tom Fote proposed a new motion to approve all five options for comment, which was backed by New York Commissioner Pat Augustine.
“Enough skirting around,” said Augustine. “I’d like to move this forward to get out to the public without any other changes.”
During the public comment period before the vote, backers of more protection for the fish spoke.
“I’ve been watching this for seven years and you’ve gone nowhere,” said Charlie Hutchinson of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen’s Association. “This is the first time you’ve even approached doing something.”
Omega Protein representatives said nothing.
After the vote, Goldsborough looked relieved and happy.
“We did not get here quickly,” he said. “We built to this point. These kind of sea changes come in increments.”
Coastal Conservation Association Maryland thanked the state’s commissioners and promised to build public support for the strongest management measures possible.
“With menhaden currently at their lowest point in 54 years and barely sustaining 9 percent of an unfished stock, we are pleased to see movement in a positive direction,” said executive director Tony Friedrich. “I believe in time we will look back on today’s action by the commission and realize that this is the day that menhaden management finally began.”
Public comment, either at hearings or in writing, will be taking place between now and October. ASMFC will review those thoughts along with additional technical information before its annual meeting in Boston in November, where a final decision is expected.
“This is an entirely defensible result,” said Goldsborough. “There were lawyers here today from both sides. If we move forward we will have to defend this in another venue.”