Written by: Fly & Light Tackle Angler editorial board
[Editor’s Note: My friend Terry Gibson at Fly & Light Tackle Angler shot me a note over the weekend to remind me that there is an important vote on the future of menhaden this Friday. Here’s some background provided by Terry and his fellow editors.]
This Friday, December 14, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will hold a vote that could determine the fate of recreational fishing and the ecosystems that our fisheries depend upon along the United States’ Eastern Seaboard. The vote is in regard to the future management of Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), commonly called “pogies,” “bunker,” or “moss bunker.” Whether you target tarpon in the Florida Keys, stripers in Maine, or virtually any U.S. East Coast predators that feed primarily on fish, this vote will strongly impact your fishing future.
Atlantic menhaden stand at ten percent or less of the historic population and are at an all-time low, thanks mostly large-scale seining operations. The fish are ground into dietary supplements, fertilizer, pet food, and feed for aquaculture, chickens and pigs. This industry has been largely responsible for the overfishing of menhaden in 32 of the past 54 years. (Overfishing is defined as the taking of a population out of an ocean ecosystem faster than it can reproduce itself.)
The situation has become so dire that for the past two years it’s required “all hands on deck” advocacy by recreational fishing groups, such as several Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) state chapters, for many Audubon Society Chapters, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Menhaden Defenders, and a slew of the nation’s most respected conservation groups.
Hundreds of coastal businesses have weighed in, as did dozens of leading scientists, and more than 90,000 individuals in 2011 and some 120,000 leading up to this week’s vote. To rebuild the population and return the biomass to somewhere in range of what a healthy northwestern Atlantic needs, the commission must adopt a coast-wide annual catch limit and support measures that reduce the catch by at least 50 percent below recent levels. It should commit to meet that goal within five years.
Menhaden provide a most essential source of nutrition for a tremendous variety of predators. Notables include: striped bass, bluefish, most mackerels, all tunas, tarpon, cobia, many drums including redfish, spotted seatrout and weakfish, snook, billfishes including sailfish, whales, ospreys, eagles, gannets, and other seabirds. These are the species that drive the economies of coastal communities, supporting sustainable recreational and commercial fishing, as well as diverse wildlife watching opportunities, not to mention the massive tourism-related businesses that benefit from these industries.
Menhaden, which are often called “the most important fish in the ocean,” provide several profound ecosystem services. Foremost, they provide organisms higher in the foodweb with vastly superior nutritional elements, including proteins like Omega 3 fatty acids.
Without such nutrition, or even with less of it, animals struggle in many ways, from making long-distance migrations back to spawning grounds, to fending off infections, to actually having the energy to produce viable eggs and sperm.
Perhaps the most alarming direct impact is the impact on reproduction. But many striped bass, especially in the Chesapeake region, are suffering from skin lesions linked to weaknesses in their immune system caused by malnutrition. “Trophic cascades” are also being documented. For instance, weakfish have virtually disappeared, and it is likely a consequence of striped bass and bluefish eating them instead of menhaden. There are plenty of other examples. Finally, menhaden, as filter feeders, play vital roles in maintaining water quality.
The December 14 ASMFC meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, is open to the public. If you are in the Baltimore area or care to travel, you’re encouraged to attend.