Concern over volume taken from menhaden stocks leads to call for change in catch limits

Concern over volume taken from menhaden stocks leads to call for change in catch limits

The Westerly Sun

PROVIDENCE — Concerned about declining numbers of Atlantic menhaden, Rhode Island environmental and recreational fishing groups are urging the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to change the way it manages the species.

The commission comprises state delegations from Maine to Florida as well as several state and federal agencies.

Rhode Island’s three representatives on the commission are Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, Robert Ballou from the state Department of Environmental Management, and David Borden, representing Gov. Gina Raimondo. Each state has a single vote, which is determined by a majority of its representatives.

Known in Rhode Island as pogies or bunker, menhaden are considered to be a keystone species because they are eaten by gamefish such as striped bass and birds like ospreys and because they are popular baitfish. Menhaden are filter feeders, so they also clean the water more efficiently than oysters.

At a public hearing on Oct. 4, Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association and the Rhode Island Audubon Society urged the Rhode Island members of the commission to approve a proposed change to menhaden management that would establish catch quotas in the context of the fish’s role in the ecosystem.

For decades, fish management has been based on the maximum catch that can be taken without decimating the species. Save The Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone explained why that approach has been unsuccessful.

“That has led to fishing down the species population to 10 percent or less of what the normalized healthy population would look like,” he said. “Even determining what that means is highly speculative, but the scientific community has come up with various models to help the fisheries commission make determinations about what the normal healthy population would look like in any particular species and the quotas are then based on ‘what’s the maximum you can take and have fish the next year?’”

While the concept of what is known as ecosystem based management is well-established, it would be new to the commission.

Stone said it is important to consider the relationships menhaden have to other species.

“Looking at the relationship of the species with other species, and that’s where the predator-prey relationships as they relate to menhaden are crucial,” Stone said. “It’s really very significant that the commission is even looking at a new approach.”

Richard Hittinger, president of the 4,500-member Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, said the proposed management regime would drastically reduce the menhaden catch.

“It’s loosely based on leaving 75 percent of the unfished biomass in the ocean for ecological purposes such as consumption by whales, by sport fish such as striped bass, osprey and many fish that rely on menhaden for a big part of their diet,” he said.

Hittinger said menhaden is a big component of the diet of striped bass, the state’s most important game fish.

“Striped bass really rely on menhaden for a key part of their diet,” he said. “There are many studies that show when menhaden are available in a striped bass’s diet, the weight to length ratio increases, so the fish become heavier-bodied, they become more healthy, they have more eggs, so the fecundity increases... They migrate, basically, following the menhaden.”

If it opts for the ecosystem-based approach for managing menhaden, the commission will set a precedent for other fish species.

“The precedent would be especially important for other species that are at the base of the food web, in other words, forage species that are consumed by other fish,” Stone said. “For example, it would be of profound importance for species like herring.”

The states’ menhaden quotas are another contentious issue, because they vary so dramatically. In addition to the overall catch limit, the commission will also consider changes to states’ shares of the total catch.

The current allocation gives an overwhelming majority of the catch, 85 percent, 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.

Not only does Virginia get the lion’s share of the total catch, a single company, the Texas-based Omega Protein, processes almost all of the state’s menhaden into fish oil and fish meal.

“The irony is that the fish meal is used for feed for things like chickens, and it’s also sold in Asia for feed for fish farms which raise Tilapia and the Tilapia is exported back to the United States,” Stone said. “We’re harvesting a foundational species, grinding it up at very low value and shipping it off to Asia, and then we’re paying for the privilege of a very low-quality farmed fish.”

Hittinger said he had trouble understanding how one state, and one business, could end up with so much of the catch.

“It’s amazing to me that all the other states, including Rhode Island, would give up something that’s really useful to our fishermen here and it’s useful to our economy, and they’re willing to give it up for one company, a Texas company operating out of Virgina,” he said.

If the menhaden catch limit is not decreased, Hittinger said the striped bass population would be adversely affected.

“When you have more baitfish in the water, it means more jobs for Rhode Islanders and that’s why I think the commissioners from Rhode Island really need to vote to conserve menhaden so that it helps our state.”

The commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board will render its decision on the proposed changes to the management plan when it meets on Nov. 13 and 14. The public is invited to comment on the proposed management changes known as “Option E of Draft Amendment 3,” until Oct. 20. Emails can be sent to:



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