At their January regular meeting, the Northampton Board of Supervisors approved a resolution against industrial menhaden fishing in the Bay, thus (virtue) signaling their support for the canceling of Omega Protein, the destruction of the Reedville watermen economy, and the inevitable collapse of that community. This is the same meeting where the board attacked fox hunting, which taken together, serves to highlight the body’s cultural, intellectual, historical, and scientific ineptitude. Futile AND stupid gestures can be beautiful–this is just stupid.
The resolution, which came armed with more agenda than actual data, was not even researched or crafted by the BoS—it was submitted by some guy at the Anheiser-Busch (Bud Light) research facility in Oyster. Should we just take his word for it?
Fishing for menhaden has been historically and culturally important not just around the Chesapeake Bay, but along large swaths of the Atlantic coastal region. Atlantic menhaden have supported one of the United States’ largest fisheries since colonial times, and they still do. The Narragansett called menhaden “munnawhatteaug” and used them to fertilize their crops.
“Menhaden were the most important fisheries throughout American history. When the first settlers learned to farm corn, it was with menhaden that they fertilized the seeds. When the whaling industry reached its height, it was outweighed by menhaden oil. Menhaden ruled the ocean from the middle of the food chain, they were the dominant prey of most large predatory fish.” – Andrew David Thaler, Southern Fried Science.
The problem with much of the Menhaden narrative is that it never really passes the Popper Falsification Principle. It’s not just the menhaden thing, it happens all over. Climate activists fail Popper’s Falsification Principle on the daily.
Too much snow => proof of climate change. Not enough snow => proof of climate change. Regular amount of snow => proof of climate change. Any climate pattern is proof of the existential crisis of climate change.
Karl Popper believed that scientific knowledge is provisional – the best we can do at the moment. The Falsification Principle, proposed by Karl Popper, is a way of demarcating science from non-science. It suggests that for a theory to be considered scientific, it must be able to be tested and conceivably proven false.
For example, the hypothesis that “all swans are white” can be falsified by observing a black swan. Popper gives the following example: Europeans, for thousands of years, had observed millions of white swans. Using inductive evidence, we could come up with the theory that all swans are white. However, exploration of Australasia introduced Europeans to black swans. Poppers’ point is this: no matter how many observations are made that confirm a theory, there is always the possibility that a future observation could refute it. Induction cannot yield certainty.
For Popper, science should attempt to disprove a theory rather than attempt to continually support theoretical hypotheses. All inductive evidence is limited: we do not observe the universe at all times and in all places. We are not justified, therefore, in making a general rule from this observation of particulars.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was at least someplace that attempted to gather data, and used several different models to produce an assessment of the menhaden stock, that could be changed as new data becomes available? You know, a data-driven assessment that could be used as a management tool that protects the stock and doesn’t destroy Reedville and families that work the water there.
Oh, wait! There’s the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission assessment!
According to the latest Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) assessment, Atlantic menhaden have been declared not overfished nor experiencing overfishing as of August 2022. The ASMFC’s Board, in their assessment, also acknowledged the results of the Single-Species Update Assessment conducted during the same period. However, some critics have raised concerns regarding the assessment’s scope, particularly its lack of focus on the Bay as a singular entity, given the substantial presence of juvenile fish within the Bay’s menhaden population. The next assessment will incorporate more bay-focused data.
Multispecies ecological assessments conducted in 2019 and 2022 similarly indicated that the coastwide stock of Atlantic menhaden remains robust, with no signs of overfishing. In February 2020, the ASMFC accepted the most recent stock assessment, reinforcing the conclusion that Atlantic menhaden are not currently overfished.
The ASMFC’s evaluation includes various assessments and reports. In February 2020, the Board accepted the outcomes of the Atlantic Menhaden Single-Species and Ecological Reference Point (ERP) Assessments and Peer Review Reports for management utilization. The single-species assessment, utilizing the Beaufort Assessment Model (BAM), confirms that the stock is not overfished or experiencing overfishing concerning current single-species reference points.
Furthermore, the ERP assessment, which evaluates the stock’s health within an ecosystem context, underscores the need for lower fishing mortality reference points to account for menhaden’s crucial role as a forage fish. Utilizing the Northwest Atlantic Coastal Shelf Model of Intermediate Complexity for Ecosystems (NWACS-MICE), the ERP assessment delineates ERPs for Atlantic menhaden, factoring in various predator and prey species, including striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, spiny dogfish, Atlantic herring, and bay anchovy.
August 2020 saw the Board’s approval of ERPs aimed at managing Atlantic Menhaden effectively. These ERPs include targets and thresholds for fishing mortality rates and fecundity, with a specific focus on sustaining Atlantic striped bass, a key predator species sensitive to menhaden harvest.
For all the newbies jumping on the “Save the Menhaden” bandwagon, longstanding activists emphasize the history of their engagement dating back to the 1990s. We road on Green Peace boats, and traveled to Washington D.C. to engage legislators–we begged for better management tools. These efforts culminated in the adoption of the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM).
EAFM, currently employed in menhaden studies and management, integrates the Northwest Atlantic Coastal Shelf-Model of Intermediate Complexity for Ecosystems (NWACS-MICE) and Beaufort Assessment Model (BAM) models, providing a comprehensive framework for assessment and regulation.
The journey towards EAFM has been marked by significant milestones. Early concerns over declines in the menhaden population and localized depletion in the Chesapeake Bay prompted regulatory action, leading to the implementation of Amendment 1 in 2001. Subsequent amendments, including Amendment 2 in 2012 and Amendment 3 in 2017, further refined management strategies and prioritized the development of menhaden-specific ERPs.
In October 2020, the ASMFC established a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for menhaden, setting a limit of 194,400 metric tons for the 2021 and 2022 fishing seasons, guided by the newly established reference points.
The ASMFC’s assessment and adaptive management reflect a collective effort to ensure the sustainability of Atlantic menhaden populations and the health of the broader marine ecosystem while attempting to foster a balanced approach to fisheries management that considers ecological dynamics alongside socioeconomic interests.
So, this is where we are. Let’s pump the brakes before we engage in destroying an entire community on the other side of the bay. It seems every time there is a blip in rockfish recruitment the anti-Omega crowd comes storming in to cancel Reedville.
Note: was anyone paying attention to this rockfish season? Charters, commercial, and recreational hit quotas very quickly, and these were huge fish (even some tuna were chasing some sort of forage fish into the Bay). The latest problem de jour is the osprey, which of course is being blamed on industrial menhaden fishing. But is Omega the problem? Is it?
Karl Popper, where are you??
Menhaden activists also attempt to draw a false dichotomy between the folks working on Omega boats and so-called smaller bait fishermen. While the few Omega boats may catch large quantities, don’t several thousand fish traps also add up? If you are going to cancel Omega, you need to cancel everybody.
As discussions surrounding the Atlantic menhaden population intensify, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is actively collecting data to inform future management decisions. Concurrently, Virginia’s 2024 General Assembly has introduced Bill 19 (HB19), directing the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) to conduct a comprehensive three-year study on the status of Atlantic menhaden.
However, critics have voiced skepticism, alleging that entities such as the ASMFC, VIMS, and VMRC are influenced by commercial interests, particularly the Omega Protein Corporation. Such claims cast doubt on the credibility of forthcoming findings, challenging the objectivity of those involved in the research process.
The significance of these assessments lies in their potential to provide updated and accurate insights into the current state of the menhaden population. Once the data is available, stakeholders anticipate a clearer understanding of menhaden dynamics, enabling informed adjustments to the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and other management measures.
While awaiting the outcomes of these studies, we should urge policymakers to prioritize substantive solutions over symbolic gestures.
The upcoming assessments promise to shed light on the complex interplay between ecological health, economic interests, and regulatory frameworks.
Once we have fresh data, we will have a better understanding of the menhaden status–then we can make the required adjustments to the TAC. Until then, skip the meaningless, virtue-signaling resolutions and focus on problems that you might be able to do something about.