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Menhaden: Not overfished, not endangered

November 25, 2012 12:10 am


Fishing vessels line the shore in Reedville, where Virginia watermen earn a living catching menhaden.


--Atlantic menhaden, the product of the East Coast's largest fishery by weight, is a vital species to many Virginia communities. It supplies both the reduction industry in Reedville and bait for fishing businesses statewide. With a decision due from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in December on new catch limits, the impact on Virginia watermen looms large.

Environmental organizations, including local groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have taken this opportunity to push for sharp catch reductions. The CBF advocates an immediate 25 percent reduction in harvests, while Pew Environment is pushing for an even steeper 50 percent cut.

Adopting these or similar measures would devastate the fishery, disproportionately hurting Virginia watermen. Omega Protein's reduction facility is the economic lifeblood of Virginia's Northern Neck. We directly employ 250 people and indirectly employ hundreds more. Our facility annually produces some $88 million in economic output in a region where dependable, good-paying jobs are otherwise scarce.

But the impact of the cuts would extend far beyond Reedville: The menhaden bait fishery, which also operates extensively in the state, would have its harvests reduced, and the watermen who use that bait may see it become more scarce and expensive.

While the environmental advocacy community claims these precipitous cuts are necessary to conserve the resource, the truth is much more nuanced.

In 2010, an ASMFC stock assessment found that menhaden were experiencing overfishing, meaning that, in 2008 (the last year of the assessment) fishing exceeded the ASMFC's designated mortality limit. This triggered the management process culminating in this December's prospective catch limits.

But the recent history of the fishery has not been marked by a pattern of over-exploitation: In 2008 overfishing was slight (0.4 percent over the limit), and this was only the second time in the period from 1993 to 2008 where it had even occurred. The stock fared even better in measures of fecundity (the number of eggs produced). The assessment found the population was producing more than enough eggs to sustain itself, meaning it was not overfished.

Further complicating the management process is the 2012 assessment. While it concluded that overfishing was still occurring but that the population was not overfished, the assessment was regarded by the ASMFC's Menhaden Technical Committee as severely flawed, especially in its pessimistic estimations of menhaden biomass and fishing mortality.

The committee found that these flaws were so bad that the assessment was unfit for management advice. As a result, officials at the ASMFC are now expected to regulate a fishery whose exact status is uncertain and regardind which the last reliable data come from 2008.

Omega Protein recognizes the importance of menhaden conservation. But good conservation is based on sound science and strikes a balance between the concerns of environmentalists and the needs of fishermen whose livelihoods are at stake. Pushing for Draconian cuts despite incomplete evidence does the opposite, needlessly hurting fishing communities while not advancing long-term conservation goals.

Monty Deihl directs fishing operations for Omega Protein in Northumberland County.

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