Clock running out on fate of menhaden

Regulators have done little to protect bay population

May 02, 2010|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

Ten ugly truths to ponder as you take part in the spring striped bass fishing season — enjoy it while it lasts.

Fact: In 2001, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved management objectives and benchmarks to protect the Atlantic menhaden, a small fish that lives in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast that filters water and is a major food source for striped bass and other important fish and bird species.

Fact: Nine years later, the regulatory group has done a lot of posturing and not much protecting.

Fact: The most recent menhaden stock assessment indicates the mortality rate is flirting with the threshold of overfishing and has crossed the line at least three, but likely four, times in the past decade.

Fact: Not once since 1980 have regulators managed to hit the mortality target, or goal. Not even the 1988 Orioles could match that 0-29 record.

Fact: Scientists acknowledge that despite more than $5 million in research grants and an increase in the amount of information they have on the menhaden population along the Eastern Seaboard, they still can't offer an assessment for the Chesapeake Bay and don't know when they might accomplish the task.

Fact: The number of eggs produced each year is well above the target, but the number of egg-producing fish has declined substantially since 1980. Fishing mortality is low in sexually immature menhaden (1-3 years old), but the mortality rate in older fish is well above the ASMFC benchmark.

Fact: Maryland, the spawning ground and nursery for 75 percent of East Coast striped bass, does not allow commercial menhaden fishing in its portion of the bay. In Virginia, menhaden are the only saltwater fish regulated by state lawmakers. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission handles everything else. Two bills filed last session to eliminate the exception died quickly.

Fact: In November, the ASMFC caved in to Virginia and extended a five-year cap on commercial menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay by not one year, but three. The extension was granted a year before it was set to expire and just months before the stock assessment was due.

Fact: As Virginia's attorney general, Bob McDonnell — now governor — wrote a 2006 opinion saying the ASMFC had no legal standing to cap the harvest of menhaden by the commercial fleet of Omega Protein based in that state and that Virginia was not bound to comply with it. Omega, the only player in the bay, gave McDonnell a total of $29,744 in campaign money and $62,000 to key state lawmakers.

Fact: Monday is the first day Omega Protein's steamer fleet — directed by spotter planes — is allowed by Virginia to begin netting entire schools of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay to be processed into heart-healthy fish oil pills.

Pitiful. So now what?

The ASMFC is meeting this week in Northern Virginia, and Wednesday afternoon it will take up the menhaden issue for the one billionth time. If the commission follows its well-worn script, anything Maryland proposes will be opposed by Virginia while the rest of the "regulators" la-di-da their way to cocktail hour.

In ASMFC talk, that would be Option 1, status quo. Will that be straight up or on the rocks, Mr. Commissioner?

Clearly, someone will have to force the issue.

Recreational fishing groups, such as the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, have promised to be there.

"We're seeing a significant decline in the health of striped bass. They are getting sick, and they are malnourished. A well-fed striped bass is more resistant to disease," said MSSA executive director Dave Smith, who believes ASMFC is dragging its feet.

"They're moving too slowly. They're not making decisions. They're deferring to Virginia too much," said Smith, ticking off the problems. "All we want is for them to hit their stock target levels. Why have them if you're not going to even try honoring them?"

Indeed, by ASMFC's most recent calculations, menhaden were overfished in 1999, 2002 and 2006. Scientists and numbers crunchers believe overfishing occurred in 2008 as well.

CCA-Maryland's Scott McGuire said the new stock assessment "is the first opportunity to demonstrate that there is a problem."

"We've got eyebrows fully raised," McGuire said. "Hopefully, it will push the issue forward."

The agenda shows the ASMFC has carved out just two hours and 45 minutes from the four-day meeting for menhaden. After being briefed on the stock assessment, the commissioners have set aside 25 minutes to "consider whether a change in the management plan should be initiated" before 5:30 p.m. adjournment and happy hour.

Maryland will need eight of the 17 ASMFC votes to begin revising the way it looks at menhaden, protects the spawning stock and brings the commercial harvest in line with the mortality target.

It isn't just a bay issue anymore. Here's hoping the vote isn't a cliffhanger.

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