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Decision over a tiny baitfish could sway the largest East Coast fishery

KENT ISLAND, Md. — Tony Friedrich sped toward Tilghman Point in the Chesapeake Bay in his 25-foot fishing boat. He was searching for striped bass, a prized catch for recreational anglers. Scanning the horizon, he noted the dark oil patches, swooping gulls and the smell of “death and watermelon” — the telltale signs of menhaden, an oily fish that striped bass “eat like Snickers bars.” Where there is menhaden, Friedrich will find striped bass.

Friedrich turned toward East Bay, seeking protection from the southeast winds. Menhaden swim to the surface in large schools to feed on phytoplankton if there aren’t any whitecaps — foamy surface waves caused by the winds, he said. Friedrich has always been amazed by the scene. The hundreds of menhaden that slap the water’s surface. The birds that dive bomb, snatching the small fish in their beaks. The predators — striped bass, weakfish and bluefish — that lurk in the depths to ambush the school from below.

Sometimes called bunker, pogy, or baitfish, fishermen like Friedrich know menhaden well. Although he doesn’t angle for menhaden, they are critical for the food web and support the largest East Coast commercial fishery. That is why the debate over their survival has reached a fever pitch.

Atlantic menhaden. ASMFC Illustration by Dawn Witherington.

Hundreds are expected to gather in Baltimore Monday as interstate regulators make a landmark decision for menhaden, and possibly, all Atlantic fisheries. Menhaden went largely unmanaged for decades, and the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission will potentially move to reinforce protections for the species and the ecosystem they support.

The commission accepted public comments from August to October and received 158,106. Commercial bait and reduction fishers, conservation organizations and recreational anglers are all weighing in on the decision.

The deliberation comes as some marine species that rely on menhaden like striped bass, and weakfish are in steep decline. Menhaden populations saw sharp drops in the late 1960s and again in the late 1990s. But their numbers leveled off 15 years ago, and began to rebound after the ASMFC set the first coastwide catch limit in 2013. Now, the commission is taking a new, and possibly historic, perspective on fish management by considering how the health of one species — menhaden — influences the numbers of others, in this case predators like striped bass and weakfish.

“When [menhaden] are not abundant, everything collapses,” Friedrich said. “We have to do what’s right.”

But there are many opinions on what is right. On Monday, the ASMFC will choose between five options, ranging from dramatic reductions in the allocation and catch limit to no change at all.

The biggest decision centers on how to take into account the menhaden population as it relates to the greater ecosystem. This is done by studying the species that rely on menhaden and using them as yardsticks for population health. Striped bass, for example, or seabirds. Scientists call such measures “ecological reference points.”

Contrary to most commercial fish, which are top predators, menhaden forage at the base of the food chain. They eat tiny drifting plants in the warm coastal waters, converting them to protein for their predators, which are many species of fish, marine mammals and birds. Dubbed “the most important fish in the sea” by historian Bruce Franklin, some scientists argue that menhaden are the cornerstone of the Atlantic food pyramid.

Many species feed on Atlantic menhaden including ospreys, bluefish, loons, weakfish, cod, striped bass, king mackerel, humpback whales, and bald eagles. Conceptual illustration by The Pew Charitable Trusts

Menhaden catch limits are dictated by a single-species “reference point” that considers only their abundance to maximize fishery yield. Integrating ecosystem health would change that, taking into account the role that menhaden play in the ecosystem. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates less than 10 forage fish species in the U.S. are managed in this way.

“Almost all the fish that are managed in the ocean are managed in isolation,” said Joseph Gordon, Pew’s manager for ocean conservation in the Northeast, Gordon explained that catch limits are based on how much harvest can occur without overfishing a species.

“That system doesn’t work for a species that has such an incredibly important role to so many other predators,” Gordon said. And while the recent rise in whales near New York and osprey in the Chesapeake can be attributed to the menhaden comeback, he said, this new management strategy would take into account the needs of struggling predators when setting catch limits for menhaden.

Why increase regulations if the population isn’t overfished?

But opponents of the largest proposed reductions in catch limits said the menhaden population is strong. They cite the ASMFC’s 2017 stock assessment, which stated menhaden are ‘neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.’

“We support ecological reference points that are specifically tied to menhaden,” said Ben Landry, Omega Protein’s director of public affairs. Landry argued the most restrictive of the proposed options draw from the Lenfest Report, a document drafted in 2012 by 13 marine and fisheries scientists that advises on the management of forage fish in general. For example, one rule-of-thumb states if biomass of a particular forage fish species drops below 40 percent of historic levels, fishing stops. But these guidelines are not specific to menhaden, Landry said.

Facing the possibility of dramatic reductions in their catch limit, Landry hopes the ASMFC picks an option that maintains current management strategies, while the commission compiles more data specific to menhaden.

“We’re going to be the guinea pig on this type of management, so let’s do it with menhaden-specific reference points,” Landry said.

Omega Protein has a big stake in the decision. The menhaden reduction fishery’s heyday between the 1950s and 1960s, comprised at least 150 vessels from 23 plants between Maine and Florida. These fishermen caught as much as 700,000 metric tons each year before the industry tanked in the late 1960s when the geographic range of the stock reduced significantly. By 2006, only one plant remained–Omega Protein in Reedville, Virginia.

Menhaden landings by reduction and bait fishers. Graphic by ASMFC

Today, Omega Protein makes up the entire reduction fishery, which grinds the fish up into fish meal or fish oil for dogfood, health supplements, or fertilizer. They take 75 percent of the total East Coast catch. The remaining quarter is caught by small fishers and sold as bait for lobster or crab. Omega Protein is one of the largest employers in Reedville with 265 employees. Landry said if certain options in the amendment are selected, there could be an enormous impact on this historic fishing village.

Landry expects that a reduced harvest will more likely affect the menhaden bait market, so don’t expect the price of your dog food to skyrocket. Even with the largest proposed reduction in harvest — 26 percent — it is unlikely that everyday consumer goods will see a significant impact, Landry said. He adds that U.S. harvesters in the fish meal and fish oil market comprise a tiny fraction of the global supply, about five percent.

Omega Protein purse seining for menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay. Footage by Omega Protein

Landry would prefer the interstate regulators wait for the conclusion of an ongoing study before implementing changes. In 2015, the ASMFC issued a memorandum stating that they do “not feel that the management actions recommended in the [Lenfest Report] are appropriate for Atlantic menhaden specific management” and the commission launched research to examine the predator-prey relationships between menhaden and species like bluefish and striped bass. This research will take years to complete, so why the proposed amendment now?

“Some board members are concerned that we should take another step until that modeling is completed,” said Toni Kerns, director of ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program.

Gordon said now is the time to implement ecological reference point management for menhaden. “I think everyone understands the circle of life. The comission is responsible for managing a sustainable fishery, but striped bass are in decline. Weakfish are in decline,” he said. Gordon hopes the ASMFC will adopt a strategy that supports both the fishery and predators.

Can science protect menhaden and their predators?

But fisheries scientist Tom Miller of the University of Maryland said menhaden are a challenge to study because most adult menhaden live in the open sea. Miller is developing his own model because he said current proposals use “proxies for the reference points.”

A group of 118 scientists in disciplines ranging from fisheries to bird ecology penned a letter urging the commission to implement Lenfest report recommendations while the council’s own committee continues to develop menhaden specific reference points.

Miller said the crux of the debate is not a question of science, but a question of values. Agreeing on the most important role for menhaden is at the heart of the matter.

“There is a role for the fishermen, a role for those that want to promote seabirds and the health of whales, and all of that has to come to a consensus,” Miller said. “What is it that we value?”

For Friedrich, who doesn’t remember a time in his life when he didn’t fish, the decision is obvious. There’s no doubt he will be at Monday’s meeting.

“My son will never catch a weakfish,” Friedrich said, recalling that two decades ago he would catch hundreds of them. He doesn’t want the same thing to happen to striped bass.

Friedrich pointed to a cloudy spot on his sonar screen, likely a school of menhaden. He spotted birds flying above a dark spot of “nervous water” and turned to head toward them. As he got closer, the cacophony of fish tails slapping the surface grew. Friedrich slowed his boat and cast his line toward the school of baitfish and the hungry striped bass below.

“If this isn’t worth protecting, I don’t know what is,” he said as his rod bent toward the water.