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Menhaden regulations turn into a soap opera

November 24, 2017

In case you haven’t been following the saga of menhaden, please allow me to recap this soap opera.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulates the menhaden stock from Maine to Florida. The Omega Protein Company located in Reedville, Va., is the primary user of menhaden in its processing plant that turns the oily fish into products that are used for makeup and chicken feed, among other things. This company harvests menhaden by surrounding schools of the fish with a purse seine, and then the mother ship pumps out the net and stores the fish until it returns to Reedville. Currently, Omega Protein is allowed to harvest 160,000 metric tons of menhaden a year. They wanted ASMFC to increase the total allowable catch to 314,000 mt, of which Virginia would get 84.96 percent, since all of the reduction and most of the bait fishery happens in the commonwealth.

On the other side of this little drama are the various recreational fishing and conservation groups who would love to see Omega Protein go out of business because they think the large number of menhaden being taken from the ecosystem is causing great harm. These groups want the ASMFC to regulate the menhaden fishery not as a separate species, as they are currently doing, but as part of the overall ecosystem because these fish provide food for a wide variety of species.

All of this came to a head during the ASMFC board meeting Nov. 13-14 in Baltimore, where the new regulations were hammered out. Without going into all the motions and amendments discussed and voted on, let’s cut to the chase. The ASMFC board approved a plan that raises the total allowable catch to 216,000 mt in 2018 and 2019, unless the scientific and technical committee comes up with ecological reference points before the end of 2019. Most likely the ERPs will not be done in that time frame.

The science behind this decision is the menhaden stock is not currently overfished and overfishing is not occurring. Unfortunately, some conservation groups portrayed the situation to be much worse than it really is. They used scare tactics to convince folks who have little knowledge of the situation that the big, old bogyman Omega Protein was decimating the menhaden stock and causing fish, mammals and birds to starve to death. One quote I read said the stocks of striped bass and bluefish were endangered because of the lack of menhaden. Sorry, Charlie, neither one is endangered or in any way threatened.

The recreational and conservation groups also convinced their members to comment on the proposed management plans, and that is a good thing. However, this is not a popularity contest, so no matter how many people voted to reduce the harvest and set ecological reference points before the ASMFC had determined those points, it is science that will be followed. In this case, the science determined the outcome and that seems to make everybody mad. 

Omega Protein issued a press release claiming it was politics that determined the new regulations. They claim the science should allow the ASMFC to raise the total allowable catch to 240,000 mt, the highest number that the working group estimated has zero chance of having fishing mortality rise above the threshold. That figure was brought to a vote and was defeated 14-4. The next vote was for a 220,000 mt total allowable catch. That was defeated 13-5. When they voted on 216,000 mt total allowable catch, that number carried, 11-7.

Now Omega Protein knows something about politics. They pretty much have the Virginia Legislature in their pocket. To make sure it stays there, the company donates to every member of the Legislature, Democrat or Republican. Menhaden are the only fish regulated by the Virginia Legislature. The rest are regulated by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission or the Fish and Game Commission. All bills that seek to change this never get out of the Chesapeake Bay and its Tributaries Committee.

I know quite a few folks who serve on the ASMFC board, and most are truly interested in the health of the fishery. To claim they are there with a political agenda is, for the most part, untrue. They do not get paid for this service and end up spending several days a month away from home.

I do know a few ASMFC members who serve a political agenda, but fortunately, there are enough people who try to do what’s right for the resource to make the politicos ineffective.

In my opinion, the ASMFC members did exactly what they should have done. They looked at the science that said the stock is healthy and at the progress on developing ERPs, which is incomplete, and made the best decisions possible.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at Eburnle@aol.com.

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