, 2014

Menhaden: Overfished or bad research?

by Audrey Thomasson

REEDVILLE—A new scientific study released February 1 on the status of menhaden along the Atlantic coast has resulted in more questions than answers on whether the species are overfished—a claim that led to a decision last December by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to slash the allowable catch by 20%.

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The new restriction forced Omega Protein of Reedville, one of the area’s largest employers with a $15 million payroll, to cut two fishing vessels and 50 positions, according to the company’s director of fishing operations, Monty Diehl.

Was the ASMFC decision to impose restrictions too hasty?

During the December meeting, it was the contention of a majority of commission members that menhaden are being overfished while other members questioned the reliability of the data being used. They asked the commission not to rush into imposing restrictions but to wait for a thorough study.

“The commission was under a great deal of pressure from sport fishing and environmentalists,” said Diehl. But the truth is, only a 2008 study showed overfishing, and by just 0.4%, while subsequent studies have been erratic, he said.

The February 1 report by ASMFC’s Technical Committee questioned if current methods of measuring menhaden stock are reliable based on the fact that only one major fishery, Omega Protein, remains on the East Coast.

“The Technical Committee said, ‘We do not trust our model. We need to develop a new model,’” said Diehl. The committee did several sensitivity studies in January, one showing the stock is overfished while a newer study model shows it was not. “Scientists are saying ‘We can’t say that its overfished.’ This should bring into question if the (ASMFC) board members knew then what they know now, would they have made a 10% cut rather than 20%? There is a huge difference between the two models,” Diehl noted.

Mike Waine, fishery management plan coordinator with ASMFC, said, “The term ‘overfished’ means there aren’t enough left to sustain themselves. Currently, it’s unknown whether there are enough menhaden out there or not, whether it’s overfished or not,” he said. “But are they ‘overfishing?’ Yes...Overfishing is like taking money out of your bank account faster than it’s coming in. The rate of removing fish is too high so the action taken in December was in reaction to overfishing.”

He agreed with Diehl that scientists have not determined the most appropriate method of measuring menhaden. “That’s what they’re working on right now. They are exploring all ways. They’re not relying on what they’ve done in the past,” he said.

The ASMFC board is also managing the menhaden industry as an eco-system component, said Waine, which is another reason the board wants to protect their numbers.

Diehl argues that approach is inaccurate because menhaden do not filter water and don’t provide significant benefits to water quality.

According to John Bull, director of public relations for the Virginia Marine Resource Commission (VMRC), a study by the Virginia Institute Marine Science showed adult menhaden “...do not remove harmful nitrogen from the water and improve water quality.” However, Bull said there is information dating back 100 years that supports the contention by sport fishermen that menhaden are food for game fish like striped bass.

“The bottom line? What is needed is a new stock assessment...one that is more comprehensive, more in depth,” said Bull. “One that shows the overall health of the stock, what level of harvest would be safe and what level of harvest would constitute overfishing.

“What hurts Omega is that the science used was messed up...it couldn’t say if it was overfished, if the stock was healthy. But the ASMFC said ‘We’re going to cut it back anyway.’ If a more thorough assessment proves the stock is healthy and not overfished, Omega could ask to have the restriction rolled back and say ‘You harmed us.’”

Bull said the ASMFC is expected to complete a thorough assessment in a year.

More from menhaden experts

Omega Protein director of fishing operations and Reedville plant general manager Monty Deihl will review the current and future status of Reedville’s menhaden reduction industry during the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum Winter/Spring Lecture.

Deihl will speak at 7 p.m. April 1 in Festival Halle at 177 Main Street in Reedville.

A Reedville native, Deihl is a graduate of Northumberland High School and Randolph-Macon College. A retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, he has masters’ degrees in administration, aeronautical studies and industrial resource strategy.

He served numerous assignments and locations in the USAF around the world, earning a Bronze Star Medal for combat operations in Desert Storm and a Defense Superior Service Award. Before retiring from the service, he served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon as the U.S. military’s senior nuclear arms control treaty negotiator.

VIMS After Hours lecture

Dr. Rob Latour of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science will explore the long-simmering issues surrounding Atlantic menhaden, their commercial harvest, and the recreational fisheries that target menhaden predators such as striped bass during a VIMS After Hours lecture today, March 28.

The 45-minute free lecture will begin at 7 p.m. in Watermen’s Hall on the VIMS campus in Gloucester Point. Reservations are required due to limited space. Register at http://bit.ly/ahmenhaden, or call 684-7846.

Latour is a member and past chairman of the menhaden technical committee for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the body charged with management of menhaden populations along the U.S. East Coast. He has worked with colleagues at VIMS and elsewhere to determine menhaden abundance in the bay, to quantify the role that menhaden play in filtering water and sustaining predators, and to better understand the process by which young menhaden are “recruited” into the adult population.

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