Fans of reality television are undoubtedly familiar with Deadliest Catch, a program that chronicles the trials and triumphs of commercial fishermen who brave the frigid temperatures and unpredictability of the Bering Sea in pursuit of Alaskan crab. Indeed, commercial fishing is not for the faint of heart: Regardless of the particular catch it is considered one of the most dangerous professions, in the course of which fishermen get little sleep, work long hours, often perform arduous and dangerous manual labor, and brave the elements on a daily basis.
Far from the Bering Sea, a storm is brewing that threatens to engulf a different species of commercial fisherman—and at the center of this storm lies the humble menhaden, an oily and inauspicious baitfish wholly unaware of its central role in this drama. Pitted against each other in this life-and-death struggle are, on the one hand, Omega Protein, and, on the other, conservationists and recreational anglers who believe that the company’s fishing practices spell the end of Atlantic coast menhaden.
Omega Protein, headquartered in Houston, is North America’s largest menhaden harvester (www.omegaproteininc.com). In Reedville, Virginia, Omega Protein operates a reduction plant—so-called because after the menhaden are caught at sea, they are “reduced” or boiled down and their oil extracted for a number of products, including paint additives, heart-healthy tablets, pet food, and, ironically, fish food for aquaculture. This reduction plant is central to the lifeblood of Reedville: It supports roughly 300 jobs in the industry and shells out about $40 million a year in operating expenses.
Americans have been fishing for menhaden since before the United States was born. Native Americans used the bony fish—which humans do not eat—as fertilizer for their crops. Eventually others got in on the act, harvesting thousands of pounds of menhaden onto wooden ships by hand with standard nets. In the mid-1900s the fishing was so good that menhaden factories dotted the East Coast, and nearly two dozen reduction operations thrived in states like Maine, Delaware and North Carolina alone.
Times have changed, however, and on the East Coast, only Omega Protein’s Reedville plant is still standing today. The company uses spotter planes, sophisticated electronics, “mother ships,” and “purse seine” nets, which close up from the bottom using a drawstring (such as one finds on a purse). Smaller chase boats deploy these nets when they locate a school of menhaden; the nets may capture as many as 10,000 menhaden in a single haul. These efficient methods have allowed Omega Protein to gather nearly a quarter of a billion tons of menhaden in a single season.
Insisting that menhaden are overfished and on the brink of collapse, conservationists point to Little Fish, Big Impact, a recent study by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a group of 13 eminent scientists from around the world who spent three years identifying the crucial role of numerous saltwater baitfish (www.lenfestocean.org). The study concludes that in many areas baitfish are over-harvested by as much as 50 percent, and that they are worth twice as much as forage fish for larger predators as they are when commercially harvested.
Conservationists fear that overfishing leaves too few forage fish behind for striped bass, flounder, red drum, speckled sea trout and tuna to eat. They add that avian predators—like loons and ospreys—and many other marine animals depend on menhaden for their survival. (Other studies indicate that similar baitfish species, like American shad, have also dwindled. Alewife and blueback herring—better known collectively as river herring—have experienced a particularly dramatic decline in recent years.)
Menhaden management varies by state. Individual states manage their own fishing regulations from their coastline to three miles out from shore. The area from the three-mile limit to 200 miles offshore falls under the jurisdiction of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in an area known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. Beyond 200 miles offshore is considered international waters and is more or less common ocean property.
Created in 1942, the ASMFC is a consortium representing 15 states from Maine to Florida (www.asmfc.org). As one might imagine, different states have different commercial and political interests. Maine, for example, may tend to be more lenient with lobster harvests, in which South Carolina may be supremely uninterested. Massachusetts may wish to more closely regulate the striper harvest, whereas New Jersey may see no reason to do so. This form of management by committee doesn’t necessarily make for a nimble body. In addition, conservationists have long accused the ASMFC of siding with commercial fishing interests. They argue that the ASMFC is too focused on the maximum yield of the 26 species of fish they manage, rather than on those species’ long-term health.
In November 2011, however, ASMFC members meeting in Boston decided in a historic landslide vote to change an important benchmark they use to determine the health of the menhaden population, which could significantly reduce the menhaden harvest. Only Virginia and New Jersey, both of which have large menhaden harvesting interests, voted to use less conservative reference points to determine how many menhaden to spare from future harvests. Analysts use these benchmarks or reference points to project how many fish may be in a certain stock. The reference points themselves are a matter of controversy: Commercial fishing interests argue that government studies use models that are inconclusive at best and that grossly underestimate the number of fish at worst. These stakeholders recently submitted some studies of their own indicating that the menhaden population may be much healthier than originally thought. As one might imagine, however, these industry-funded studies are viewed with suspicion by those in the recreational and conservation camps, who see them as a means of stalling menhaden recovery efforts.
The ASMFC had certainly been under pressure to act: The latest ASMFC stock assessment indicated that the menhaden population was at an all-time low of just 8 percent of an unfished stock. During the public comment period, ASMFC commissioners received 91,949 letters—91,922 of which demanded more conservative reference points (which would presumably result in a reduced harvest). After the historic vote, one conservationist actually wept with joy. As one might imagine, Omega Protein and other commercial fishing interests were less enthusiastic about the decision.
The historic ASMFC vote took place in Boston, but ground zero for the future of menhaden soon shifted to the Virginia General Assembly. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission manages every saltwater species for the state—except menhaden, curiously enough. Those are managed personally by the Virginia General Assembly, much to the chagrin of recreational anglers and conservationists. Critics of this peculiar legislative arrangement are quick to point out that Omega Protein has donated more than $200,000 to Virginia politicians, both Republican and Democrat, since 2001. Conservationists feared, then, that the Virginia legislature would somehow delay implementation of the ASMFC decision.
Is Virginia really out of step with its neighbors? On May 11, 2012, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF), the state agency that oversees saltwater species in the Tar Heel State, voted to exclude from state waters any commercial operations that use mother ships. Lawmakers claim that they bear Omega Protein no ill will, but the fact is that no other operator fishes in state waters for menhaden in this way—and so one must assume that regulators crafted the law for a single purpose. (The new rule does not completely rein in commercial harvesting of menhaden, however: According to the NCDMF, in 2011 alone commercial anglers excluding Omega Protein landed more than five million pounds of menhaden.) North Carolina’s action means that Virginia is now the only state on the entire East Coast that allows Omega Protein to fish commercially in state waters. And the Chesapeake Bay—much of which lies within Virginia state waters—is home to vast schools of menhaden.
Hotly debated for years in ASMFC public meetings are the answers to two questions: How many menhaden are actually available for commercial fishermen or hungry predators, and how much of a harvest reduction do we need to ensure the health of future menhaden stocks? Unfortunately, marine studies and stock assessments often yield murky and conflicting results. Recently, for example, the Technical Committee on menhaden, which advises ASMFC commissioners, agreed that overfishing of menhaden is occurring but it is unknown whether the stock is overfished—that is, committee members believe that given menhaden’s biological reference points they are currently being removed at a rate that jeopardizes the stock’s ability to replace itself. The Technical Committee is working to resolve the uncertainty in the overfished status through the upcoming benchmark stock assessment. Of course, this is music to the ears of commercial fishing interests, who have asserted all along that menhaden are not overfished. Conservation groups, by contrast, have urged the ASMFC to err on the side of caution and protect the stock from overfishing in the first place.
Monty Deihl, Omega Protein’s Reedville plant manager, takes these public policy decisions relatively personally: “The Technical Committee’s recent determination that there is insufficient information to declare the stock overfished is not a surprise, but unfortunately the ASMFC board based their decision for a 20% harvest reduction on assumptions that the stock was overfished based on their new reference points. In reality those cuts are having significant economic impacts on families and fishing communities. We’ve had to make changes in our operations due to the cutbacks. As a result our boats Smith Island and Tidelands have been retired. The Tidelands has been mothballed, but Smith Island was sold outright and this represents the loss of 28 crewmen. A number of factory employees have also been let go.”
Aligned against Omega Protein and its employees are conservationists and recreational anglers who say that the economics of menhaden harvesting actually favor their argument: Bait and tackle shops, fishing guide services, restaurants, watercraft manufacturers, lodging facilities—all of these could be adversely affected if the menhaden population collapses and recreational anglers take their business out of the Commonwealth. They also claim that Chesapeake Bay stripers are currently in decline, and many carry lesions that some believe have been caused by the lack of menhaden to eat.
Recreational anglers aren’t the only ones concerned about predator species. Peter Baker, with the Pew Environmental Group (www.pewenvironment.org), also sees the need to reduce the menhaden harvest: “The recent decision of the ASMFC to make modest cuts in the menhaden catch is an attempt to bring the marine ecosystem back to balance by providing more menhaden for top predators like striped bass, osprey and whales to eat. The ASMFC responded to the more than 200,000 Americans who have commented in support of menhaden conservation over the last two years.” Skeptical of non-governmental studies on menhaden health, Baker commented that “while industry-paid scientists work to create scientific uncertainty to keep harvest levels high, the ASMFC has taken a common-sense approach that respects the right of the American people to protect their natural resources from being depleted by industrial fishing practices.”
In January 2013, Virginia House of Delegates Bill 2245, introduced by state delegate Edward Scott (R) and designed to bring Virginia into compliance with the ASMFC recommendations, swiftly passed with bipartisan support. This means that the Commonwealth has cleared what was the last hurdle to lowering the menhaden harvest levels by roughly 20%. Stakeholders arrayed on either side of the issue will no doubt be dissatisfied—commercial fishing interests because the cuts are too draconian, and recreation and conservation interests because the cuts don’t go far enough to curtail the menhaden harvest.
For now the skirmishes have quieted. The ASMFC will conduct a new stock assessment in 2014 to determine future harvest levels, and interested parties can only hope that the best available science will yield telling results. At that time, the short-term truce will undoubtedly come to an end, and those whose futures depend in one way or another on the lowly menhaden will open up a new front in the ongoing baitfish wars.
Beau Beasley is an investigative outdoor journalist and the author of Fly Fishing Virginia and Fly Fishing the MId-Atlantic. Contact him at www.beaubeasley.com