The latest assessment on Atlantic Menhaden, presented to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in 2022, concluded that “overfishing is not occurring, and the stock is not considered overfished.”
For many years, special interest and conservation groups contended commercial harvests by Omega Protein has depleted menhaden in the bay.
It should be noted that the ASMFC made adjustments to their assessment methodologies, incorporating ecological reference points (ERPs) which take into account the ecological role of menhaden as a popular food for other species.
The latest assessment used two reports: the 2019 Atlantic Menhaden Single-Species Benchmark Assessment and the Ecological Reference Points Stock Assessment. These assessments were peer-reviewed and approved by an independent panel of scientific experts through the 69th SouthEast, Data, Assessment and Review (SEDAR) workshop. The reports represent the latest and best information available on the status of the coastwide Atlantic menhaden stock for use in fisheries management and acknowledge the role of Atlantic menhaden as a forage fish.
Even using new ecological reference points, the latest assessment concluded the overall stock was healthy and not experiencing overfishing.
Of course, there are still some special groups that are dubious of the peer–reviewed data. The main bone of contention is that the assessment evaluates the menhaden stock coastwide and does not take into account what they perceive as Omega Protein’s abusive practices in the Bay, where most of the harvest takes place.
Omega, which operates a “reduction” fishery based in Reedville, VA, is responsible for about 70% of East Coat menhaden harvest.
Is there localized depletion in the bay?
The total allowable catch (TAC) for Atlantic menhaden is 233,550 metric tons for the 2023-2025 fishing seasons. The ASMFC sets the TAC at 75.21% of the annual TAC, after setting aside 1.0% for episodic events. The daily vessel limit for commercial harvest is 6,000 lbs or 17 barrels. Harvest days are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
The current cap on menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay is 51,000 metric tons per year. This is about 112 million pounds. The cap was first implemented in 2006. In 2020, the cap was lowered to 36,192 metric tons due to Omega Protein’s excess harvest during the 2019 fishing season.
In May, Recreational anglers in Virginia and Maryland filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) alleging that the VMRC failed to properly manage the menhaden population in state waters by increasing the fishery catch limit. The lawsuit claims that the VMRC adopted a regulation that could increase the annual catch by 21,000 metric tons. The lawsuit contends that the VMRC failed its legal obligation to protect menhaden from overfishing.
The suspects are declining rockfish populations, and now osprey in the lower bay losing nests, not breeding, and in some cases, not getting enough food to survive. Lack of menhaden in the lower bay is being blamed for the downturns.
The striped bass population has been in decline for years but lack of menhaden may not be the issue. Studies indicate that rockfish in the bay mainly eat bay anchovy and other small fish.
Overharvesting, as well as poaching, including by recreational anglers, have much to do with the decline of striped bass. While anglers are limited to one fish per day during the season, we know there is fudging. While authorities have initiated crackdowns on poaching (the entire Atlantic coast and the bay), the illegal taking of rockfish still happens. Federal waters have a moratorium that prohibits “all commercial and recreational fishing for Atlantic striped bass,” according to NOAA.
The osprey problem is disturbing, but are low menhaden numbers the only culprit? Is there data, outside of finding empty nests there to support this? Is pollution, agricultural chemicals, and pesticides causing a problem? Have the birds moved to locations with more robust food sources, such as eels, croakers, spots, and other small fish?
How do we track the current status of menhaden when they move so much? Bunkers migrate in and out of the mouth of the bay and move freely up and down the coast.
Full stop. Can we just be honest? How much of this is really about rockfish, and any other ill, and more about closing down the reduction fishery in Reedville? In some cases, they have said the quiet part out loud: “I intend on producing legislation that will require that reduction fishing be eliminated (in the Chesapeake Bay) in Virginia” — Del. Tim Anderson (R-Va. 83rd District).
If bay harvests are stopped, Reedville operations would cease—this fleet cannot safely operate in the Atlantic.
There are a bunch of rich people, in their expensive fishing boats, expensive pleasure crafts, expensive sailboats, and, multi-million dollar coastal homes that want nothing more than to shut down the Reedville plant. Well-healed local Cape Charles come-heres, and Shore trust-fund babies are routinely popping off with half-baked drivel about the menhaden population in the bay.
This writer knows—since the 90s, I have been tracking the menhaden issue, and have been responsible for putting out some really bad gouge. In point, I once wrote about how the menhaden were important due to their ability to filter and clean water, sort of like an oyster. This was debunked years ago.
It took years, but based on my own mistakes, I have become a skeptic about some of the claims that get put out there.
What we can say for sure is that if these people have their way and shut down the Reedville operations, it will destroy the community Captain Elijah W. Reed settled in 1874, a village he recognized for its potential as a prime port for the menhaden fishing industry.
Is this just class warfare masquerading as environmentalism?
It is time to curb the knee-jerk reactions, most of which are not based on data, only anecdotal observations.
More data is coming, and we will eventually have a clearer idea of the Chesapeake Bay menhaden. Congress approved funding to support data collection regarding the Chesapeake Bay population status of this fish. These numbers should be ready by 2025 when the next assessment is due from the ASMFC.
Until then, we just don’t know what we don’t know.