Questions raised about menhaden population

Health of Chesapeake fish unknown

May 06, 2010|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

Alexandria, Va. — — Protecting menhaden, the small fish that nourishes striped bass and other species, moved a bit closer to reality Wednesday when East Coast fisheries managers unanimously agreed to review the science that forms the foundation of regulations.

Recreational anglers and conservation groups applauded the vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to prepare more conservative benchmarks for menhaden that would lead to greater abundance. They had been frustrated by a nine-year process that became mired in interstate politics and intense lobbying by commercial interests.

"All we want is more fish in the water," said Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. "The present marks set such a low bar that you can come to the ludicrous conclusion that menhaden are not being overfished."

The effort was led by Maryland representatives who were concerned that commercial menhaden fishing was leaving little food behind for striped bass, the most popular fish for recreational saltwater anglers. John Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, called the vote "a great first step.

"We got out of the starting gate, but we have a long way to go," he said. "We have to come to grips with this issue that has been the subject of a lot of dodgeball."

Biologists are expected to report to the ASMFC at its August meeting.

While the latest stock assessment indicated the menhaden stock is not being overfished, it also showed that overfishing has occurred in 32 of the past 53 years, leaving the abundance at its lowest point in more than a half-century. It also showed that the commercial harvest was particularly hard on sexually mature fish, meaning they have a low probability of spawning more than once.

"If the population is declining, what point does it have to reach before you do something?" Beau Beasley, an angler and Virginia firefighter, asked ASMFC members. "The trend is easy to track. It is down."

The new stock assessment left little room for argument. Even representatives from Virginia — the home of Omega Protein, the only menhaden fishing fleet in the Chesapeake Bay — praised the report and voted for the review.

Menhaden are a bony fish prized for their heart-healthy Omega3 oil and as the base for animal feed. In states north of Maryland, menhaden are harvested as bait.

In the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay, Omega Protein trawlers employ spotter planes to locate schools of menhaden, which are then scooped up in large nets and processed at a plant on the Northern Neck. Maryland does not allow the so-called reduction fishery, but does permit a much smaller bait fishery.

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