Rhode Island environmental groups are joining with local fishermen to support changes to federal regulations of an important fish species; menhaden. The small, school-traveling filter feeders are fished along the East Coast for bait and, in the Chesapeake Bay area, as a reduction species used for fish oil and other ingredients.
But menhaden’s most important role? As food for other species of fish and birds like striped bass and osprey.
“Everything [recreational] fishermen like to catch in Rhode Island feed on menhaden, from blue fish and black sea bass to flounder and fluke,” said Jonathan Stone, Executive Director of Save The Bay.
Other environmental advocacy groups, such as The Nature Conservancy, have come out in support of ‘Amendment 3,’ proposed changes proposed through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which would reduce commercial harvest limits and develop a more rigorous monitoring system to make sure menhaden is not overfished and allowed to thrive in ecosystems, such as Narragansett Bay, where they improve water quality and are a food source for other species.
According to Stone, menhaden stocks have been significantly reduced since the early 1900s. “The species spawns in estuaries to our south, primarily in the Chesapeake Bay,” explained the Save The Bay director.
“Juveniles grow rapidly in the nutrient waters of the Chesapeake and, as water warms, they migrate up to Long Island Sound and Rhode Island. In the old days, before the species collapsed, [menhaden] used to be super abundant up and down the East Coast with schools recorded being 20 miles long offshore.”
“That is not to be seen anymore.”
In 2012, the commission placed catch limits on the menhaden fishery for the first time, capping the annual harvest at 20 percent less than the average landings from 2009-2011.
In 2016, according to The Nature Conservancy, 400 million pounds of menhaden were harvested in the U.S., 76 percent of which was used for reduction-type products such as pet food and human health supplements. 24 percent was Since last November, the ASMFC has received hundreds of thousands of comments from interested parties on the proposed menhaden management changes.
In Rhode Island, the Saltwater Anglers Association (RISAA) has been vocal about its support for responsible management due to the importance of recreational fishing to the state’s local economy.
“Rhode Island’s saltwater anglers, who spend millions of dollars pursuing their interest, believe this is the most important fisheries issue to come up for a vote in years,” said Rich Hittinger, RISAA vice-president. “It is clear that the vast majority of those with an interest in menhaden support ecological management of this fish.”
One group which is in opposition to Amendment 3, however, is Omega Protein Corporation, a health supplement business headquartered in Houston, TX. Employees have signed an online petition urging ASFMC to adopt its ‘Option B,’ through which the catch quota for 2018 would remain unchanged.
“The major problem with the fishery is that total allowable catch is set far too low,” read Omega Protein’s petition statement. “The ASMFC is managing menhaden as if the stock were overfished when it is at historic high levels. The current allocation system is fair in that it is based on actual landings in each state, which helps protect historic participants and dependent fishing communities. The problem is that the artificially low quotas are not allowing states to access the abundant menhaden in there waters as they were able to do during similar periods of high abundance, such as during the 1980s.”
“Allocating the menhaden resource without regard to historic participation or needs of states would set a terrible example that could be used in other fisheries where highly dependent states could lose fish by majority vote,” it continued.
Stone and other environmental advocacy groups are not convinced.
“Omega Proteins has great influence in the Virginia legislature,” said the Save The Bay director Tuesday. “Menhaden is the only fishery where that legislature itself manages the fishery, which is due to the political influence of this company; they are the only reduction fishery left on the East Coast.”
“This one species had been completely unregulated until 2010,” he continued. “The first time any quotas were established, the company fought them hard, and continue to fight increase of menhaden harvest because it harms their ability to farm fish.”
Stone added that, in Rhode Island and other states, the industries supporting recreational fishing would be harmed long-term if menhaden is not allowed to thrive.
“There is quite a bit of data on the impact of [menhaden] on recreational fishing in Rhode Island,” he explained, noting that during peak seasons out-of-state fishermen bring ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ into the state’s economy to pay for bait, fuel and dock boats in local marinas.
The commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, which counts Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Robert Ballou as a member, will vote on amendment options for 2018 on Nov. 13-14 in Baltimore, Md.
To view the proposed changes, visit: www.asmfc.org/files/PublicInput/AtlanticMenhadenDraftAmendment3_PublicComment.pdf.