The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or ASMFC, has determined (again!) that the number of spawning Atlantic striped bass is below the required threshold to maintain proper “recruitment” (newborns), and therefore, sustainable population abundance. The logical conclusion is to restrict activities that reduce abundance, such as catch limits. It’s a pretty simple formula, right?
(Existing Stock) – (Fishing) = (Abundance)
Less fishing = more abundance.
But how simple is it, really?
The left side of this equation contains two factors: “Existing Stock” and “Fishing.” One represents the supply (or production) of fish in the water, the other represents the demand for fish to be taken out of the water. If one believed that supply is constant and only the only thing you can change is demand, then, one could conclude that stripers are overfished (relative to existing stock).
For whatever reason, the ASMFC has only one solution: increase or reduce demand. As a result, every year, we swing between abundance and depletion, excitement and panic. Certainly, there is a lot of blame to go around, but the ASMFC seems to have only one conclusion: overfishing. So, what other factors change the abundance of stripers and can we do anything to help?
Let’s look at other factors that affect the existing stock. Water quality is certainly a significant factor. Over the last few decades, water quality has significantly improved in estuaries like the Narragansett Bay and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as other waterways on the East Coast, like the Hudson, the Connecticut and Long Island Sound, which are all constantly improving. Even with improved water quality, the biomass of stripers is still in trouble. So, if not water, what other factors can we study?
What about food? A recent scientific study showed us what commercial and recreational fishermen have known for decades. There is a strong relationship between the abundance of menhaden and the abundance of blues, weakfish, striped bass!
This may be a shocking finding, but foreign-owned Cooke Inc., the owner of Omega Protein, “purse seins” hundreds of millions of pounds of menhaden a year with large nets from the East Coast and the Chesapeake Bay. The commercial menhaden fishery has reduced the striped bass population by 30%! Plus, there is a one-to-one relationship between the abundance of menhaden and the abundance of striped bass.
The truth is that stripers are not overfished, they are underfed! One compnay, Omega Protein, is literally taking menhaden from the mouths of stripers at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, the nursery for 70% of the striped bass on the East Coast. They are simply starving them of their principal source of protein.
So, one paltry company with a little over $300 million in revenue is literally starving the fish that feed a commercial and recreational fishery worth billions and billions of economic value to the Atlantic Coast states. Valued at pennies per pound, Menhaden are ground up to be served to dogs, cats and pigs. Last time we looked, there was no problem with the abundance of cats and dogs! Menhaden are obviously more valuable if left in the water.
Even more distressing is that one state, Virginia (aka, the Omega Protein fleet) takes over 80% of the annual quota of 476,198,486 pounds of menhaden! In addition, Omega Protein and its supporters have convinced the ASMFC that they could raise the existing catch limits by 40%! The ASMFC bends over backwards to accommodate Omega Protein’s requests. This is nothing but power politics in action!
Why should Rhode Island and other East Coast states allow one industrial fishery in Virginia to effectively starve their striped bass? If we do not change this, we will continually fight over smaller and smaller pieces of a dwindling striper population. All while one company in Virginia turns striped bass’ main source of protein into cat, dog and fish food, and even fertilizer!
Omega Protein has the Virginia legislature tied up in knots. It’s up to the other East Coast states to step up and engage in this process. Without focused pressure from other states, Virginia will continue to favor their tiny commercial menhaden fishing industry. Rhode Island has the status to lead this effort with its record of conservation and the second-largest estuary on the East coast. The striped bass fishery is way too important to all our local economies to allow this status-quo starvation regime to continue.
The writer is a resident of Westerly.