Commercial fishing groups and conservationists are watching closely as the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board continues its two-day meeting today to decide whether to implement a new regimen, known as Amendment 3, for managing menhaden stocks.
The board is part of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or ASMFC, whose members include delegations from 15 states from Maine to Florida as well as several state and federal agencies. Rhode Island has three representatives on the commission. Each state has a single vote, which is determined by a majority of its representatives.
Management of the menhaden fishery has been traditionally based on the maximum catch that can be taken without decimating the species, but in 2012, the commission passed Amendment 2, which reduced the annual menhaden catch by 20 percent.The menhaden population rebounded.
Now, several Rhode Island conservation organizations, Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, The Nature Conservancyand the Rhode Island Audubon Society, have joined national environmental groups in urging the commission to approve another change to menhaden management. Known as Amendment 3, the new management regime would establish catch limits in the context of the fish’s role in the ecosystem and determine the quotas for member states.
The states that belong to the commission do not receive equal shares of the menhaden quota. An overwhelming majority of the catch, 85 percent, currently goes to Virginia. New Jersey gets 11 percent and the remaining 4 percent goes to the other states. That leaves Rhode Island with just .02 percent, the equivalent of one day of fishing for one commercial boat.
In Virginia, a single company, the Texas-based Omega Protein, processes almost all of the state’s menhaden into fish oil and fish meal. Omega Protein is one of the most vocal opponents of Amendment 3.
Conservationists argue that menhaden are a vital species because so many other species, including whales, ospreys and recreational fish species such as striped bass depend on them for food.
Industry groups, represented by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, counter that the conservationists’ science is flawed, menhaden populations are healthy and reducing the catch would cause unnecessary economic hardship.
Earlier this month, in a press release included in an information packet prepared by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, Omega Protein urges the fisheries commission to “continue its current menhaden management approach until its scientific advisers finish their ongoing work developing menhaden-specific ecological reference points. Some environmental groups are advocating for interim reference points that reduce catch levels by up to 80 percent.”
The coalition is also asking the commission to increase menhaden catch limits.
“The ASMFC has found in its last two stock assessments in 2015 and 2017 that Atlantic menhaden is neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing, and the Commission’s Technical Committee recently found that the quota could be raised by up to 40 percent with no chance of overfishing,” the press release states.
Gov. Gina Raimondo appoints two of Rhode Island’s three commission members. Save The Bay’s policy director, Topher Hamblett, urged the governor to support Amendment 3’s ecosystem-based approach to managing menhaden.
“Governor Raimondo appoints two of the three commissioners from Rhode Island, and Senator [Susan] Sosnowski is the other state commissioner on the Board,” he said in a Nov. 3 press release. “Their support for ecological management of menhaden will ensure the state protects species ranging from striped bass to whales, as well as water quality in Narragansett Bay.”
The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island state director, John Torgan, noted that healthy menhaden populations were not only vital to the health of Narragansett Bay, but the entire state economy.
“Abundant menhaden is good for fish and wildlife, especially for striped bass, and good for the economy,” he said. “Rhode Islanders care about menhaden because they are critical to the health of Narragansett Bay and the larger coastal ecosystem, and have an enormous effect on other vital industries, like fishing and tourism.”
The sport fishing industry is also advocating for the approval of Amendment 3.
“The menhaden industry does not own the resource. It belongs to all of us,” Ken Hinman wrote in a recent editorial for Sport Fishing magazine. “We enjoy the fisheries that menhaden support, directly and indirectly, value the wildlife it sustains, and benefit socially and economically from a healthy and diverse ocean environment. The public pays the costs of management — from stock assessments and all the science that goes into them to fisheries regulation, monitoring and enforcement. The ASMFC has a responsibility to manage and conserve menhaden for the greatest benefit to the nation as a whole.”