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Questions Arise from Menhaden Study

June 5, 2016

Menhaden, both Atlantic (Brevoortia tyrannus) and Gulf of Mexico (B. patronus) variants, called “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” in modern environmental literature, are dubbed by their respective regulatory commissions as “neither overfished nor having overfishing occurring.”

Historically menhaden are legendary fish of great abundance and greater utility.

Reports of schools so dense as to allow no sunlight to pierce through their swimming biomass are rivaled by their characterization of their being far more important a source of lubricant to early North American industry than whales during that seafaring venture’s heyday. Fishermen harvested more oil from a Pre-Civil War era’s weekly menhaden catch than an entire year’s accumulation from whaling. Of even greater importance is menhaden’s value as “forage” for “food” fish. Greater yet, is the fact that they are “filter feeders” cleansing four to six gallons of Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico waters of phytoplankton per fish per minute.

Although Gulf menhaden were fished modestly during the 19th Century, the Gulf menhaden fishery increased dramatically shortly after World War II. It quickly surpassed the Atlantic menhaden fishery for tons taken: 437,500 mt in 1963 and at its peak 982,800 mt in 1984.

As noted the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries and the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commissions assure the planet and its human inhabitants that all is well with the state of menhaden. Neither regulatory body’s menhaden are overfished or being hauled from their respective bodies of sea water at an alarming rate, so they claim. End of story! …Well not quite.

Nagging questions arise after a close look at the source document for that claim echoed by the Atlantic and Gulf menhaden’s regulatory bodies: The Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review Stock Assessment Report: Atlantic Menhaden (SEDAR 40) released January 2015.

Prior to 2010 menhaden catches were quite literally unregulated. With the advent of purse seine use on menhaden as the Civil War declined menhaden were gathered up well over half a million tons per year. As late as 1956, the total Atlantic menhaden catch was 712,000 metric tons.

Today, the menhaden catch is divided between “reduction” and “bait” fisheries. Atlantic reduction landings in 1969 totaled 161,000 mt. The ‘70s and ‘80s harvests rose to 300,000 to 400,000 mts. In 2013, the reduction industry accounted for 131,034 mt. The 2013 Bait landings were 35,043 mt.

As expected, pronouncements of recent biomass estimations experienced similar fluctuations. From a guestimated high of 2,284,000 mts in 1958, Atlantic menhaden fell to 667,000 mt in the mid-1990s.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission set the 2015 and 2016 total allowable catch for both reduction and bait industries at 187,880 mts.

In the Gulf of Mexico reduction landings alone in 2014 were 391,854 mts, down from 497,503 mts the year before. The five previous years saw an average of 505,262 mts taken from Gulf waters. The 2015 catch was estimated at 401,000 mts.

What makes the claim “not overfished or being overfished” questionable is the language of the SEDAR 40 technical committee (TC) in the report itself. In the Executive Summary, the first sentence under the heading “Biological Reference Points” reads: “The TC does not recommend that the current, interim SPR-based (spawning potential ratio or spawner-per-recruit) overfishing and overfished definitions continue to be used for management.”

The AMFC technical committee simply doesn’t believe the basis for the “not overfished” declaration used by the Commission is valid or provides a “measure for sustainability.”

The Commission’s own technical experts call into question the credibility of the means of measuring a species’ health, biomass size and ability to survive fishing pressure. Therefore, it is anyone’s guess as to the validity of the conclusions drawn and harvest quotas allowed by either of the menhaden fisheries’ regulatory bodies.

Are menhaden fishing quotas being set to conserve and protect the species or are they being set for the advantage of the bait, fertilizer and Omega-3 supplement industries?

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