‘Make Fishing Great Again’

Bass with a bunker in its mouth, photo by John McMurray

Recent menhaden concentrations give us a glimpse of how good it can be, and how good we can make it.

Top Photo: Bass with bunker, by John McMurray

All pun intended in that title, but yes, the election is over… And that’s good, ’cause I’m damn tired of it. So let’s move on, and focus on the kinda stuff most of us can agree on…

I don’t think there’s an angler out there who would disagree that having good menhaden (aka bunker) concentrations is a good thing. Most would say it’s critical to their success in many cases.

And just about anyone who fishes up here has either experienced it, or heard of the extraordinary concentrations off of New York this fall, and the epicness that resulted.

Bunker, photo by John McMurray..

Bunker, photo by John McMurray

The fishing was, to put it simply, “great.” Arguably better than anyone has seen it, at least in the last few decades.

I’m talking acres and acres of bunker getting crushed… Pure insanity. A solid three weeks in my neck of the woods of striped bass, bluefish, whales, gannets etc. preying on these things. Some of the coolest stuff I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been guiding for the better part of two decades…

All of it, National Geographic-type stuff… Words simply can’t do any of it justice. Nor do photos and video (although this one is pretty close: Humpbacks, Finbacks, Baitballs & Stripers).

My charter fishing business and others like it, not to mention the whale watchers, birders etc., have been absolutely killing it.

Really, I think we got a taste over the last few weeks of “how it used to be.”

The Build Up

Let’s be clear that I’m not talking about an anomalous few weeks here. This was a gradual buildup of the menhaden resource that led to this extraordinary fall.

Starting three maybe four years ago, we started to see an increase in abundance. And slowly but surely, this year led up to numbers that resulted in the windfall… Not just for guides like me but for just about everyone associated with the fishing and birding industries. Without a doubt these bunker schools have revitalized existing businesses like mine, and even created new jobs like the ones in the whale watching industry.

And it isn’t just regional either. For the first time in 50 years or so, we had bunker in good numbers all the way up to Maine.

Why the Increase?

Bunker close up, photo by John McMurray

Bunker close up, photo by John McMurray.

I’m not gonna bore ya with a history of the menhaden management… I gave a pretty good rundown in a prior blog here: Menhaden Madness.

The truly relevant part though is that the commercial menhaden fishery – which had been in existence for well over 100 years – had been essentially unregulated up until 2012, save for a high (arguably useless) cap put on the Chesapeake fishery in 2006 (more on this later).

In other words, the commercial fishing industry could catch as many as the market could bear. And that was A LOT as fishmeal and fish oil markets expanded, and the demand for lobster bait increased. We’re talking hundreds of millions of pounds taken out of ecosystems each year, every year.

But yes, in 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) – a consortium of states that manages menhaden – voted in a 20% cut from previous fishing levels, based on a 2010 stock assessment.

As part of that action, almost 80 percent of the quota was allocated to the last remaining reduction fishery (Omega Protein in VA), while the rest was split among the various large and small-scale bait operators in 15 states along the coast.

Let me be clear that I absolutely believe that this 20% reduction on a fishery that uses spotter planes to systematically find and scoop entire schools of menhaden out of the water has resulted in the increased menhaden concentrations we are seeing now.

Stock-Recruitment Relationship?

Catching a big bass, photo by John McMurray

Catching a big bass, photo by John McMurray.

Believe it or not, though, the fact that more menhaden left in the water will result in more abundance is not a foregone conclusion among managers and scientists.

Stock assessment scientists have not been able to identify what they call “stock recruitment relationship,” a mathematical relationship between the number of mature menhaden and the number of juvenile fish that survive. To be clear, they aren’t saying it doesn’t exist (without parents you can’t have babies), they just can’t determine what it is.

What that means is that there is no scientific information that indicates the 20% reduction is responsible for current abundance, and so the other theory, which of course looks more attractive to industry and some managers, is that it could be more the result of environmental conditions.

While there may indeed have been good ocean conditions for them to come back, common sense should tell us that if you leave millions of pounds of fish in the water, well, there will be millions of pounds more fish in the water. And that this would likely result in future abundance/expansion.

But those who want to net more menhaden are still using that uncertainty about the stock recruitment relationship to their benefit.

The bottom line, however, is this: If you regulate (in this case cut catch back by 20%) what was by-and-large an unregulated, large-scale fishery, the stock – especially a short living, fast growing species like menhaden – will respond in a positive way. And well, it certainly appears that it did!

Recent Quota Increases?!

Unfortunately, since that 20% quota reduction in 2012, there was a 10% increase for 2015-2016 and another 6.5% scheduled for 2017.

Both increases were based on a 2015 stock assessment, which indicated such increase would not result in “overfishing.” All the anecdotal reports of increased abundance likely contributed to that decision as well. In other words, if there are more fish, industry should be able to kill more. And screw the guys up north like me who benefit from a more historical distribution.

But let’s be clear that that new stock assessment DID NOT account for the needs of predators, nor the many anglers, guides, captains, whale watchers etc., that gain from the increased abundance.

Of course we fought those increases tooth and nail, and frankly, it sucked to see them happen. Especially when most of the states that ended up supporting them had nothing to gain because their cut of the quota is so small to begin with.

Managing Menhaden as Prey

Yet, when you look at the long game, we’re currently in a pretty good position with menhaden.

As part of that initial 10% increase, ASMFC voted to do what anglers have been asking them to do for an awful long time: Move towards managing menhaden for their place in the ecosystem, instead of just as a commodity.

That means accounting for predator/prey interactions, and managing bunker not just for max harvest, but so that there are enough around over a wide geographic range for predators, and so other states and other industries can benefit from a public resource, rather than just one or two special interests.

The action, Amendment 3 to the menhaden management plan, would also review and possibly update state-by-state quota allocations, which is badly needed as states like NY got screwed in the allocation process back in 2012.

Weighing In on Amendment 3

So here’s the important part… ASMFC recently approved a Public Information Document (PID) for Draft Amendment 3 for comment. This document, which precedes a draft of the actual amendment, contains options for management. ASMFC hopes and expects stakeholders to weigh in on this document through a series of public hearings listed here: States Schedule Hearings on Atlantic Menhaden. In that link you can also find instructions on how to provide written comments.

As anglers and small businesses that have gained from the recent bunker abundance, we can’t just sit on our butts with this one. WE MUST WEIGH IN THIS TIME. And we must do it in good numbers.

Put your state’s hearing time and location on your calendar right now. If you can’t make it, you better at least write!

Yes, the document is long and complicated in places, and I don’t expect you to read the whole thing. Sooo…

Here’s Your Cheat Sheet

Issue 1 in the document deals with whether or not we manage menhaden for its place in the ecosystem, rather than continuing the current single species/harvest-focused approach.

The first thing we need to really emphasize at the hearings (or in written comments) is that the current single-species approach for menhaden isn’t appropriate given the species’ importance as prey, and its importance to predators and all the other people and businesses that depend on abundance.

Option A, is the status quo option, maintaining the current single-species approach. We should be vocal that we DO NOT support this one.

Option B suggests using widely accepted precautionary guidelines for forage species, such as managing to a target of 75% of an unfished stock (in other words leaving a minimum 75% of the number of fish that were there before we started catching them), and ensuring the population never drops below 40 percent.

I’d support this as a preferred alternative if there weren’t a better option. Will get to that.

Option C suggests using the current single-species management until menhaden-specific ecosystem reference points are developed.

The problem with this one is that, while, yes, a group of very smart people are working on developing complicated species interaction models for menhaden-specific ecosystem reference points, it’s gonna take them a long time. The current timeframe is by 2019 (note: Amendment 3 is scheduled to be completed by 2018).

Even if we do get those ecosystem reference points by 2019, they would need to be thoroughly evaluated, tested etc., and then factored into management. So we’d probably have to add several more years. In all likelihood we wouldn’t see something in play until 2022.

That’s just way too long. We need menhaden to be managed for its role as prey now. Not in 6 years. This year showed us why.

Option D is likely the most comprehensive solution. It’s really a combination of B and C. It would use the existing best scientific guidelines for managing forage species described above (e.g. leaving 75% of unfished biomass in the water and not letting it get below 40%), until menhaden-specific ecosystem reference points can be developed.

This is the best long-term solution, and the one we should support.

Other Issues

Issue 6 (Incidental Catch & Small Scale Fishery Allowance) is important for us too.

There’s a current “bycatch” loophole that allows several million pounds of menhaden to be caught, but not counted toward the quota. We should get rid of that. The problems this exemption seeks to address should be resolved through the reallocation part of the Amendment.

Lastly, there is Issue 8, which deals with the Chesapeake Bay Reduction Fishery Cap.

The goal of such a Bay-exclusive cap was to prevent all of the reduction fishery harvest from occurring in the Chesapeake Bay, a critical nursery area for menhaden, and to prevent localized depletion in the Bay.

The problem is, the reduction industry rarely even comes close to the cap. That’s because it’s too high.

So, the cap should be kept in Amendment 3, but cut in half (96 million pounds) – closer to current levels of catch – to protect against localized depletion and provide for those predators (and I’m thinking specifically about striped bass here) that depend on menhaden in the Bay.

Wrapping It Up

Overall, the important thing here is that ASMFC know that, as anglers and small business owners, some who live and die on menhaden concentrations, we want and demand that menhaden be managed for the ecosystem value, rather than just for harvest. This is a public resource and is meant to be managed for the public, rather than for one or two extractive companies.

The best way to do this is with Option D, which would seek to keep 75% of an unfished biomass in the water while menhaden-specific reference points are being developed.

We also want to close the bycatch loophole described in Issue 6. All catch should be counted towards the quota.

Lastly, we want a real cap in the Chesapeake Bay. One that does a thorough job of protecting the nursery and preventing localized depletion.

I one hundred percent believe that if ASMFC can muster the political will do this, we’ll see more of what we saw this fall. We need to do what we can to provide them with that will. And that means showing up!

Yes, there are other problems with fishery management, specifically with those predators that eat menhaden, but I do believe that a return of forage fish to their historical numbers and range, and perhaps mandating ecosystem-based management on both a federal and state level, is bottom rung on the ladder to fixing things.

Given menhaden’s importance to coastal ecosystems, it is probably the most important place to focus right now.

The return of menhaden to their historical range and numbers can and I believe will, “Make fishing great again.”

Like I said, we had a taste of it this fall. I want more than a taste. You should too.

Thanks for reading… and please act now … send a letter or better yet, get to a public hearing.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

7 comments on “‘Make Fishing Great Again’

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