With striped bass and bluefish numbers declining, managers had to make painful decisions and opted to reduce catch rates for both commercial and recreational fishermen.
Reducing the amount of fish caught is an oft-used way to try to protect and restore a species, but those same managers are also looking at the bigger picture.
“The wave of the future is ecosystem-based fisheries management,” said Ray Kane, longtime fisherman and outreach coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Kane and fellow committee members on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took that perspective when they moved to protect menhaden, a small fish at the bottom of the food chain.
A moratorium on fishing for Atlantic menhaden in Virginia state waters was published in the federal register as the year drew to a close. The moratorium, if enacted as the regulators propose, is expected to benefit fishing communities up and down the coast. To avoid the moratorium, Virginia can bring forward a plan with greater protections for menhaden.
“Menhaden is a very important forage species for all predator fish,” said Kane, also the chairman of the Massachusetts Fisheries Advisory Commission.
The moratorium was put in place after the ASMFC voted Virginia out of compliance for blowing past the limit on menhaden harvest in Chesapeake Bay by about 30 percent. The company responsible for much of the catch was Omega Protein Corp., based in Virginia. They use menhaden to produce omega-3 rich fish oil to add to bakery products as well as create protein-rich fishmeal and fish solubles for livestock and aquaculture.
Company representatives argued that they were fishing sustainably, but nine governors up and down the coast sided with ASMFC’s vote for conservation. The move was also hailed by many Cape fishermen as menhaden is considered key to the inshore ecosystem and has just recently been restored to its historic range on the Atlantic coast.
Efforts to protect menhaden mirror successful efforts to protect herring, also an essential forage fish. Both management decisions were influenced in part by the concept of localized depletion, which means that although a population as a whole may not be in trouble it is scarce enough in a region to harm a local ecosystem.
A lower menhaden catch limit of 51,000 metric tons was put in place in Chesapeake Bay in 2018 after extensive public comment. Among the top worries fueling the updated management plan for menhaden was that the bay was an essential nursery area for menhaden and predator fish – such as striped bass – were in decline.
Commercial striped bass fishing pumped $103.2 million into the regional economy in 2018 and recreational striped bass fishing accounted for $7.7 billion (yes billion) in revenue, according to a letter from Robert Beal, the executive director of ASMFC to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
Another consideration Kane thought important was the legitimacy of ASFMC. If Virginia was allowed to flout a decision made by the regional body to protect fish populations then other votes could be ignored.
The credibility of ASMFC, a cooperative entity representing multiple states since 1940, could be jeopardized, one more regulatory argument for protecting the vital menhaden population.