While things didn’t work out like we hoped they would, there is reason for hope…
Having spent the last two days at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Menhaden Management Board meeting, we are of course disappointed at the outcome.
While we’ve written about menhaden A LOT during the weeks prior to such meeting, in the case you’re not up to speed, the ASMFC Menhaden Management Board met Monday and Tuesday of this week to finalize Amendment 3 to the Menhaden Fishery Management Plan and to set quota specifications for 2018.
There were a number of issues being considered in Amendment 3, but there were two major ones. The first and clearly the most important to anglers, was the decision whether or not to implement ecological reference points for menhaden (i.e managing menhaden for their critical role as prey, rather than simply for extraction), now, in several years, or never.
The second was to revisit an inherently unfair state by state allocation system that gives one remaining large-scale extractive user rights to over 80% of a public resource.
Here’s what went down.
Ecological reference points
On day one, “ecological reference points” was the first thing on the agenda.
If you are a regular reader here, you likely know that the recreational fishing community has been supporting “Option E”. Such option would have put into effect an “interim” rule that theoretically compelled the Menhaden Management Board (the Board) to manage menhaden with the goal of achieving 75% of a virgin (read unfished) biomass, so that sufficient prey would be around for striped bass, whales, sharks etc… While 75% is the goal, no corrective management measures would be required unless stock abundance dropped below 40% of a virgin stock.
This rule is described as “interim” because a group of scientists known as the Menhaden “Biological Ecosystem Reference Point” working group (BERP), have been and are currently working on ecosystem reference points specific to menhaden. Such menhaden-specific reference points will probably differ significantly from the general 75/40 rule because the model will presumably account for predation by specific things like striped bass, bluefish etc. These models will presumably provide the Board with scientific information on what the tradeoffs would be for keeping fish in the water vs. extraction.
“Option B”, what the menhaden reduction industry was supporting, would mean continuing the current single species management system until the BERP can complete such menhaden-specific models/reference points, and avoiding the general “interim” rule all together.
Here is the issue we had with that. While BERP tells us that the menhaden specific reference points will be competed and peer-reviewed by 2019 and ready for management use by 2020, there is A LOT of uncertainty there. From a practical perspective, 2022 or 2023 is more realistic as the models need to be tested/evaluated, to see if they actually work. In short there is still A LOT of work to be done on this before such reference points see the light of day.
In the meantime, we have a single species stock assessment – one that really doesn’t account for the needs of predators at all – which, low and behold, says industry can increase harvest by 40%. Just for context, that’s another 260 million fish.
Since that single species stock assessment was released, industry has been pushing hard, each year to increase the quota, and they’ve been successful. The Menhaden board voted for a 10% increase in 2015 and another 6.5 % in 2017.
So, the goal for us was to pass Option E, so that we had that interim ecological reference point in place while the BERP worked on the menhaden specific reference points. This would help avoid further gratuitous increases.
But here’s what happened.
There was no real language in the draft Amendment that would have mandated that the Board manage to the 75% target. In other words, all the board would have to do under Option E would be to keep the stock between 40 and 75 % of an unfished stock. 40% would be totally unacceptable, and could allow a situation where the quota could be increased to a level that could literally collapse the spawning stock. 75% on the other hand was perceived to be way too constraining for industry.
So, there was plenty of rationale to not support this Option. Of course, all that really needed to be done was to clarify the intent of Option E, to manage gradually to the 75 % target, but the damage was already done. The motion for Option E failed, and the motion for Option B, to continue with single species management until the menhaden specific reference points were completed and ready for management use, passed.
Menhaden Quota Specification
On the following day, the board began the discussion on quota specification.
While of course the recreational fishing community was advocating for no increase in quota, given the most recent and “best” available science – a single species stock assessment that doesn’t account for predator needs in the slightest, and that indicates the board could increase the quota up to 40 % without “overfishing” – we stood little chance of achieving that goal. Particularly in light of the fact that the state of VA was threatening to go out of compliance (i.e., disregard an ASMFC agreed upon quota) if we didn’t increase the quota. Whether or not VA was bluffing, well, who’s to say.
Of course, compelling arguments were made that the Board should wait for the menhaden specific ecosystem reference points, before allowing any increase, so at least we would have an indication of how such an increase might affect predators like striped bass, but they fell on deaf ears.
And so, after several competing motions, the board settled on an 8 % increase in quota. This translates into about 53 million fish.
This is NOT good of course.
It is our belief that the main reason we are seeing the current resurgence of menhaden is because of a 20% reduction that was put in place in 2012.
Since then industry has gotten all of that back, and then some. And we suspect we’ll begin to see such abundance fade with each coming year.
We won’t spend much time on this one, but the end result was that the state of VA and the menhaden reduction industry didn’t lose anything. Each state now has a 0.5 % allocation that came from the quota increase. And small-scale fishing (small purse-sein and cast net fisheries) won’t really be accounted for at all.
Nothing was taken from VA and redistributed to the states that need it for their existing bait fisheries, because of the perceived loss of jobs it might create in Virginia. The whale watching and fishing guide jobs of course weren’t even mentioned.
In short, Virginia won on this one, while the rest of the states got screwed. Again… One of the main drivers for this decision was that the state would sue, and/or go out of compliance if quota were taken from them. (Note: This does not bode well for striped bass. Some speculate that the state of MD may use a similar threat, so that they can harvest more and smaller fish).
The Chesapeake Bay Cap
There was one bright spot in all of this. The ceiling on the reduction harvest in the Chesapeake Bay was lowered almost 50%.
This is, in some ways, a hollow win. The reduction industry had been under-harvesting the Bay cap for an awful long time, and the harvest cut was based on average landings over the last 5 years. But at least it prevented those landings from increasing. Had the previous cap remained in place, and should the reduction industry ever harvest the entire amount, another 80 million pounds of menhaden could have been taken out of a critical nursery for not only menhaden, but for striped bass.
For sure that would have had an extraordinary impact on not only menhaden, but striped bass and other Bay predators that feed on them.
So, that was good news.
All the rest
There were several less important decisions made with mixed results.
The board voted to continue to allow quota transfers, so if Pennsylvania does not harvest its fish then that quota can be transferred to Maine. Better was the decision to remove the rollover provision. This means that any quota not harvested in say 2018 is no longer added to 2019. A good decision.
The northeast “episodic events” program – designed to allow northern states which historically hadn’t had large menhaden aggregations to harvest menhaden when they show up in large numbers – remains with 1 % of the total allowable catch set aside for this program.
Another bad decision in our eyes is the continued allowance of incidental catch and catch from small scale fisheries to not be counted toward a state’s quota.
Here are our takeaways from all of this.
The quota increase really stinks. We’re almost certain we’ll see a decrease in menhaden abundance in the coming years as a result. And of course, a decrease in striped bass availability, whale sightings etc.
That said, the Menhaden board is committed to using the menhaden specific ecological reference points when they are ready. Hopefully that’s sooner than we think it will be.
But we should be very clear about one thing here. All those menhaden specific models will do is allow the board to understand and evaluate the trade-offs of leaving fish in the water vs the value of extracting them. There is no guarantee that the Board will chose to leave more in the water just because there will presumably be a quantifiable benefit to doing so.
That said, the info will be there, not only for the board to use, but for us to use… to advocate for keeping those fish in the water. For the ecological value they will bring. For the access they will provide, to striped bass, to whales etc. And that is very important in the context of proving our case, and swaying Commissioners to do the right thing.
Yes, we’re bummed about the way this meeting went, and particularly the lack of spine the Commission had because they were afraid of VA going out of compliance. We can, for all intents and purposes, thank New Jersey for that (see Thanks New Jersey).
But we’ve been in this business long enough to understand that you win some fights and you lose some. We’re not going to sugar coat it. This was a big loss.
But we’re already gearing up for the next fight.
We won’t give up. We can’t give up. And you can’t give up.