Will ASMFC Risk Ending Menhaden Comeback?

Atlantic Menhaden. Photo courtesy NOAA.

This Wednesday, during its annual meeting being held in the remote location of Bar Harbor, Maine, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Menhaden Management Board will once again face a controversial decision regarding the management of one of the most important fish under its jurisdiction.

The meeting is scheduled from 3:00 – 5:00 pm, and first on the agenda is setting the 2017 “specifications” or quota. At the last ASMFC meeting back in August, the commissioners were deadlocked for over three hours with more than five motions attempting to set the quota ending in a tie. Exhausted, frustrated and somewhat embarrassed, “the board” did the only reasonable thing it could do and tabled the issue until this next meeting.

How we got here

Roughly five years ago in response to a poor stock assessment, ASMFC implemented Amendment 2 (AM 2) to the Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan. Part of that action was to install, for the first time ever, a coast wide quota. The number chosen was a 20% reduction from an average of recent years harvest. Since AM 2, an amazing thing has happened. After THIRTY years of a shrinking coastal range, anecdotal reports of the stock repopulating to the North started to come in. Two years ago ASMFC conducted a new stock assessment, which agreed with the anecdotal evidence. Menhaden stocks are increasing. In response to this latest stock assessment ASMFC voted to increase the quota by 10%.

This week, ASMFC is considering ANOTHER INCREASE, which would return harvest to the levels that were in place when the range had shrunk out of New England. The following are a review and responses to the positions being taken by those that support another increase:

1. Some ASMFC Commissioners state that AM 2 and its 20% reduction was implemented immediately after a poor stock assessment. Isn’t it only fair to increase after a good stock assessment? My response is yes, it is fair and that was done over a year ago with a 10% increase.

Why 20% after AM 2 but only 10% this last time? The AM 2 reductions were taken as a result of a fishery approaching or actually overfishing (another topic). Either way it was close. The recent stock assessment that shows a more healthy menhaden stock also has many pages explaining that the range has shrunk by almost half over 30 years. The recent 10% increase was the fair increase. Why return to a quota that may have constricted the range? I urge commissioners to support status quo at this time and let the range continue to grow hopefully to the South just like it has to the North.

2. Does science support an increase in the quota? The Menhaden Technical Committee (TC) is the group that interprets menhaden related science for ASMFC. When advocates like myself suggest that the 20% reduction of AM 2 is what fueled the expansion of menhaden to the North, the TC tells us that “science” does not show a relationship between “Spawning Stock Biomass” (SSB) and “Recruitment.” In layman’s terms, the TC thinks that the size of each new year class of menhaden is not clearly linked to the number of spawning adults. Thus, in the eyes of ASMFC, simply leaving more fish in the water does not mean more little fish will be produced. The TC suspects that successful menhaden spawning is likely linked to some unknown environmental condition.

If ASMFC is going to base decisions on the recent stock assessment, it must consider the entire document. This latest assessment has a great deal of information detailing how the range of the stock shrunk by almost half over thirty years. We are not talking ancient history. I’m referring to the time between the 80s and today. At one time in the early 80s there were menhaden processing plants supplying bait to lobstermen across New England. Not one of these plants is left. Over that 30 years there was not even a single year class large enough to increase menhaden presence in Massachusetts state waters. Is the TC claiming that after 30 straight years without the correct environmental conditions, menhaden have now experienced four magical years of environmental bliss in a row? I’m sorry but I don’t buy that explanation one little bit. Nor do I need hard-fast scientific confirmation of what is obvious. AM 2 reductions of 20% resulted in menhaden growth across the historic range of the species. ASMFC has already returned 10% of that reduction. Any further increase will risk stalling the range expansion before states like South Carolina and Florida get to experience what we in New England saw in 2016.

3. What other factors influence the appropriate time to raise quota? When ASMFC took the courageous actions within AM 2, they wisely acknowledged that after years of almost no reporting requirements for both small boat commercial and recreational fisheries, it was going to take time to install modern reporting systems. Because of this, AM 2 set the allocation split at 80% for the reduction industry (100% in VA) and 20% for the rest of the coast to split up for “bait.”

ASFMC will review reallocation during Amendment 3 (AM 3), as well as begin the use of Ecological Reference Points (ERP) to determine quota. ERP’s are science-based numbers to help determine how many menhaden must be left in the water to feed striped bass, weakfish, tuna, whales, birds, etc.

Approval of the first step, the not-yet-controversial AM 3 Public Information Document (PID), is the second part of this week’s meeting. AM 3 is clearly going to be a political trade off. Many that follow ASMFC feel that these types of political trade off actions are usually much easier to accomplish if there is a possibility that they might result in a quota increase. Although I do not support a quota increase of any kind, if I were designing a strategy to kill AM 3, the first thing I would want to do is to make sure there is no quota increase possible. The best way to do that is to get an increase just before AM 3 kicks off, which is right now. Voting status quo now allows for a quota increase to be part of AM 3 later in the week. Any increase now benefits only VA and NJ, which are leading the charge for an increase this week and against AM 3 in the future. Things that make you go “Hmmmmm!”

4 . Who benefits from an increase today? Speaking of political trade off, it is true that some states have plenty of fish and need more quota. NY, RI and even ME seem to be in the position of needing more quota right now. The two numbers being floated for this week’s meeting are increases of either 6.5% or10%. Would an increase of these amounts help NY, RI or ME? Sure doesn’t look it.

The following are what those percentages mean for each state and some notes on what we know about each state going into this very important meeting:

Maine
Caught 2016 quota early in the year
Granted and exceeded additional “episodic” quota
6.5% = 10,495 lbs
10% = 16,147 lbs
Neither of these are enough for even one day of fishing in Maine. Why is Maine supporting an inadequate increase? Why is Maine willing to risk menhaden returning to state waters for local lobstermen to catch?

New Hampshire
6.5% = 8 lbs (yes, just eight pounds)
10% = 12 lbs
NH recreational fishermen saw menhaden draw some trophy striped bass fishing to local water for the first time in decades. Hopefully NH will remain a champion of menhaden conservation.

Massachusetts
6.5% = 223,511 lbs
10% = 343,863 lbs
Cape Cod, the Islands and Boston Harbor all saw re-energized fishing due to large amounts of menhaden in state waters for the first time since the early 1980s. MA recreational anglers are demanding status quo. Local lobstermen were able to harvest bait like it was 3o years ago as opposed to the MA quota being filled with harvest from outside MA waters.

Rhode Island
6.5% = 4,775 lbs
10% = 7,346 lbs
RI has a well-established and well-managed local fishery. Above all, this state deserves some additional quota. This increase is nothing and RI has been leading the opposition. Great JOB RI!

Connecticut
6.5% = 4,650 lbs
10% = 7,154 lbs
Normally a voice of menhaden conservation, staff changes have some pro menhaden advocates worried.

New York
6.5% = 14,779 lbs
10% = 22,737 lbs
A lack of reporting for many years has left NY in a legitimate bind. NY has fish and really needs more quota, hundreds of thousands of pounds of quota. These minor increases aren’t even a drop in the bucket. Why is NY supporting this proposal? Re-allocation via AM 3 is the only way permanent solution for NY.

New Jersey
6.5% = 2,983,067 lbs
10% = 4,589,334 lbs
Clearly one of the big winners of any increase prior to re-allocation. RFA has been a supporter of menhaden conservation, but is apparently ignored by the NJ delegation.

Delaware
6.5% = 3,520 lbs
10% = 5,415 lbs
Less than one day fishing by a single harvester.

Maryland
6.5% = 365,857 lbs
10% = 562,857 lbs

Potomac River Fisheries Commission
6.5% = 165,464 lbs
10% = 254,560 lbs

Virginia
6.5% = 22,741,802 lbs
10% = 34,987,388 lbs
VA will get 80% of any increase and its super-profitable reduction industry can ship more aquaculture pellets to foreign countries.

North Carolina
6.5% = 131,342 lbs
10% = 202,065 lbs
A tale of two states: Sometimes a leader of menhaden conservation and sometimes not. Outer Banks recreational anglers have been complaining about excessive removals from outside NC state waters for years.

South Carolina
6.5% = 0 lbs
10% = 0 lbs
Has not seen increased numbers in recent years but long time champion of menhaden conservation Robert Boyles is reportedly considering supporting an increase? What a loss that would be for the forces of moderation in ASMFC fisheries. Say it ain’t so Mr. Boyles, PLEASE say it ain’t so!!!

Georgia
6.5% = 0 lbs
10% = 0 lbs
Has not seen increased numbers in recent years. Has always stood up for menhaden conservation.

Florida
6.5% = 4,790 lbs
10% = 7.370 lbs
Has not seen increased numbers in recent years. Has always stood up for menhaden conservation at ASMFC.

Summary

An increase now may risk the ongoing expansion of menhaden across their historic range.

An increase now is not going to help but a few states, mostly NJ and VA.

An increase now will make it harder to complete development of Amendment 3, and that is exactly what the industrial harvesters want.

I urge all anglers to “Support Status Quo NOW!”

Email your state commissioners via the ASMFC website.

Atlantic menhaden. Photo courtesy NOAA.

About Patrick Paquette

Patrick Paquette is a recreational fisheries advocate from MA who covers the New England & Mid Atlantic Councils and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

2 comments on “Will ASMFC Risk Ending Menhaden Comeback?

  1. excellent post, very informative. I wonder why the opposite specialists of this
    sector don’t realize this. You must proceed your writing.
    I’m sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!

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