In 2012, the Atlantic States commission imposed a first-ever coastwide catch reduction of 20 percent for menhaden after a scientific assessment concluded they were overfished. A followup study using new models and information concluded last year that the earlier assessment was wrong. The commission has responded by twice ratcheting up annual catch limits, with a 6.5 percent increase approved in October, allowing for 200,000 metric tons to be caught coastwide in 2017.
Now, the commission is trying to come up with new “ecological reference points” which, if adopted, would impose catch limits on menhaden that would ensure enough are left in the water to sustain other species that feed on them. Scientists have come up with general guidelines for protecting some other forage species. For instance, Pacific Coast fishery managers use them in setting a catch cutoff for sardines.
But a workgroup set up last year by the Atlantic states commission has expressed concerns about the applicability to menhaden of general guidelines for regulating other forage species. Menhaden aren’t as vital to the diet of other East Coast species as forage fish in some other settings, the group noted. In any event, developing ecological guidelines specific to menhaden may take until 2019, the group has said.
As a result, the Atlantic States commission is seeking public comment on whether to apply general forage species guidelines or continue with the effort to tailor an approach specific to menhaden. And if the effort is to continue, the commission is weighing whether to set some interim limits until the workgroup has finished its task. (It’s also taking input on a “no-action” option, asking if it should drop the ecological reference point idea altogether and keep setting catch limits focused only on ensuring the sustainability of the menhaden stock.)
Conservation and recreational fishing groups are urging the commission to set interim ecologically based limits now, using existing scientific guidelines for other forage species.
“We want to make sure we have forage out there so it can support a whole host of commercial and recreational fisheries,” said Chris Moore, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It also “ensures there are enough menhaden in the water to fulfill their role in the food chain for the protection of all marine life,” he explained in an email to foundation supporters.
Commercial fishing interests, though, want to wait until 2019 to see what the workgroup comes up with. Ben Landry, spokesman for Omega Protein, called it premature to adopt ecological guidelines for regulating the menhaden fishery before the issue has been thoroughly studied. He noted that even with the recent increases approved by the commission, the catch is still below what scientists say is sustainable.Everybody likes Menhaden.