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August 3, 2011

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.”

Posted by Candus Thomson at 7:48 AM | | Comments (12)


Thanks again, Candace for your coverage of this. Slight smile, fingers crossed & guarded expectations... though almost certain there will be legal wrangling ahead.

Those of us who have been working on menhaden restoration for many years are indebted to Candy Thomson. She has been an excellent communicator of the problem and the process. We are happy that Candy could attend and report on yesterday's historic meeting.

Now the real battle begins. It starts with the states that voted NO to any meaningful action to restore a forage stock that has fallen to a historic low point ... Maine, Virginia, Rhode Island. In the case of menhaden, these states appear to have abdicated their responsibility for protecting the public's marine resources.

Those of us who have been working on menhaden restoration for many years are indebted to Candy Thomson. She has been an excellent communicator of the problem and the process. We are happy that Candy could attend and report on yesterday's historic meeting.

Now the real battle begins. It starts with the states that voted NO to any meaningful action to restore a forage stock that has fallen to a historic low point ... Maine, Virginia, Rhode Island. In the case of menhaden, these states appear to have abdicated their responsibility for protecting the public's marine resources.

I'm delighted to see this. As a Maryland resident, is there anyway I can assist?

Another excellent article pointing out the need for everyone's involvement in environmental issues.

i was very much involved in researching the mythological Psiteria crisis and the supposed atack on menhaden. Turns out over 955 of the menhaden lesions were cause by an parasitic fungus known as Aphonomyces invadans. i have been interested in the plight of menhaden ever since. please post or publish information about mechanisms for public comment. Thank you. Sam, Ph.D.

Great coverage Candy. Hopefully the Sun recognizes that this type of in-depth reporting gets -and keeps-the public actively engaged in issues like this.

Now onto the tough part... How do you get the Commonwealth of Virginia to responsibly manage the fishery when the Governor and key members of the legislature's pockets are lined by Omega Protein lobbyists during each election cycle? Those contributions have fostered the status quo for too many years... And the rockfish population has paid the price.

Not only the Striped Bass; Flounder, Sea Trout, Blue Fish, all have been adversely impacted by the commercial predation on Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coastal waters.

Now maybe our grandchildren will have a chance to enjoy the kind of experiences we knew growing up around the Bay!

Thanks for all of your thoughtful and informative articles, Candus!

"Omega Protein representatives said nothing. " If they said nothing that scares me. These people are about profit and they will do whatever dirty trick it takes to get it.

Now lets get the word out and and make sure the majority of the comments are coming from the real public who want to protect our natural resources and their way of life. Its time to start placing some of these decisions in the hands of the people and not the politicos who always seem to kowtow to the commercial interests.

This is a wonderful development for those of us who believe that paying heed to what science tells us (on any particular issue) is wise. Science is the best process we have for getting at wise decisions concerning natural resources. If we had been listening to our scientists for the last 50 years - and acting on their recommendations we might not be in the difficult positions we are in regarding restoration of key resources. There are Virginians who support the Commission's recommendations, but there will be a strong backlash. As Lynn said "Now the hard work begins"

This article fails to mention that menhaden stocks have been scientifically proven to not really be affected at all by fishing pressure, i.e. scientists have found that fishing pressure and the population of menhaden stocks are not correlated. Instead, they have found that menhaden are very affected by water quality and pollution levels, and that these seem to be the driving force behind the health of the stock; fishing pressure is fairly irrelevant. "Overfishing" is a broadly used term that does not necessarily mean that a stock is overexploited by fishing vessels, (although you would think that), and many scientists cannot even give a comprehensive explanation of the term, although it is widely used. There are no terms to describe a stock that is in danger due to harmful chemicals, pollution, water temperature, or any other factors, so "overfishing" tends to be used. There is actually a power plant in Connecticut that meets a definition of overfishing on its own, due to the amount of fish it kills as it uses local seawater to cool its engines. Especially in the case of menhaden, these would seem to be the factors at play, not fishing. Fishing restrictions are not going to be the answer for a stock affected primarily by pollution and water quality; chemicals, pollution (especially such things as sewer plants that spew treated chlorinated water into local bodies of water used for spawning, etc) would seem to be the way to go to ensure healthy stock levels. These are the real problems and issues.

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About Candus Thomson
In a world of paper vs. plastic and candy mint vs. breath mint, my early memories involved a debate about the merits of freshwater vs. saltwater.

On the one hand, a great uncle’s fishing cabin on the Susquehanna River beckoned, but so did family gatherings on the Jersey Shore.

The correct answer, thankfully, was, “both.”

As The Sun’s outdoors writer for more than a decade, I’ve fished across Maryland in one day, hiked the width of the state in one hour, camped overnight in the median of I-95 to experience the wildlife between the fast lanes and chased mountain bikers in a 24-hour marathon race.

Those are some of the highlights. I’ve also fallen in a raging Gunpowder River during a trout survey (photo available upon request), had a shark spill its guts on my clothes and been stuck in a sub-freezing Vermont wilderness with men armed with flintlocks and hatchets, shuffling along on ancient wooden snowshoes.

And, in my travels I’ve met lots of you, who share a love of the outdoors and the good times and mishaps that go along with it.

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