Whale eating Menhaden
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The Menhaden Project

Menhaden, aka Bunker, are oftentimes referred to as the “most important fish in the ocean”. They play a key role in the marine ecosystem linking their food source, plankton, to larger predators such as striped bass and bluefish, sharks, marine mammals, and fish-eating birds. The abundance of menhaden is vitally important to the health of our waters in NY, and along coastal waters off the east coast of the US. Here’s a menhaden update from Carl LoBue, NY Ocean Program Director at Nature Conservancy and Save The Great South Bay Advisory Board Member:

“It’s still an exciting time in the world of menhaden management!  Since the update at the 2019 Long Island Nature Organization (LINO) meeting, New York State passed a law eliminating purse seining for menhaden in NY waters.  This law, which was widely supported by Long Island baymen, recreational fishermen, charter boat captains, scientists, marine trades, fishing clubs, whale and dolphin enthusiasts, was passed unanimously by both chambers of the NYS legislature and signed by Governor Cuomo in time to have taken effect for the 2019 fishing season.

Concerns about the state of Virginia not being in compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Menhaden Management Plan’s Chesapeake Bay Harvest Cap came to a head last fall with the Commission unanimously finding the state of Virginia out-of-compliance following Omega Protein subsidiary of Cooke Seafood Inc. harvesting menhaden well in excess of the 51,000 metric ton (MT) Chesapeake Bay Harvest Cap.  In mid-December, after urging of many stakeholders, including a bi-partisan coalition of nine governors (including Gov Cuomo), the US Secretary of Commerce upheld the ASMFC’s non-compliance finding and gave the commonwealth of Virginia 6 months to come back into compliance or the federal government would take steps to essentially close the states menhaden fishery.  Pressure to rectify this situation before the June 2020 deadline just recently made it possible for both houses of the VA state legislature to move past a multi-decades long stalemate and pass companion bills that would give the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) the authority that it already has for other marine fisheries, taking future menhaden management decisions out of the hands of the legislature.  VA Governor Northam just recently signed the bill into law, and VA is now setting up a state menhaden management advisory committee to help inform the VMRC’s decisions moving forward. In fact, Virginia adjusted the 2020 Chesapeake Bay menhaden reduction fishery harvest cap in response to Omega’s actions in 2019.

In early February 2020 the ASMFC Menhaden Technical Committee presented results of an updated stock assessment and peer review of both single-species and ecological reference points for Atlantic Menhaden.  In simple terms, the results of the ecosystem reference point analyses showed that when the menhaden fishing rate is lower, it makes it easier to rebuild the abundance of striped bass, and ultimately more abundant menhaden allows striped bass to be harvested at a higher rate while still keeping the striped bass population within the management targets.  While this made intuitive sense to many of the fishermen, managers, and experts in the room, there were still questions of what the results would be when another important species, bluefish, was added to the model projections.  This, along with other procedural concerns, prompted the decision of the Menhaden Management Board to approve the stock assessment documents for future management use, but simultaneously defer the decision to adopt the ecological reference points pending additional multi-species analyses anticipated to be completed later this spring.  While the expectation was that this would be picked up at the upcoming meeting in May, the truncation of the agenda and transition from an in-person meeting to webinar could result in an additional deferment.”  

For more info about the menhaden conservation campaign, check out these articles:

Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden catch cut drastically, along with Omega Protein quota

Atlantic Commission Says Omega Violated Menhaden Limit, National Fisherman

Menhaden & Whales Return to New York, The Nature Conservancy

Menhaden Management, The Richmond Times

Click here for the agenda and webinar login instructions for the ASMFC meeting on May 5-6 (The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board meeting is at 10:45 on May 5th).