BUNKER TIME: BOOM OR BUST
The end of the season is settling in. In the last six weeks or so I’ve fished both shores of Long Island, our home waters in NYC, explored the NJ shore from Sandy Hook to the Barnegat Lighthouse, and just last week I headed south and fished with Captain Tyler Nonn / Tidewater Charters in the Chesapeake Bay. So while I haven’t fished quite as much as I wanted to, due to some annoying and some not-so-annoying details of life, I did manage to do alright. And in all those places this fall, the one consistent thing was bait—there was a lot of bait in the water this year, mostly of the peanut/juvenile bunker variety. Even this summer in Long Beach Island I found schools of them loaded up under marina lights, and the consensus, at least empirically and anecdotally, is that it’s because of the 20 percent reduction the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) enacted in 2012.
If you remember a few years ago we fought to get the menhaden industry regulated when it was previously essentially a free-for-all. Omega Protein, the last reduction industry in the country, was and still is the primary culprit—they still take 80 percent of the total catch to make their fish pellets and fish oil. But the 20 percent cut we achieved in 2012 made a big difference: if you saw the masses of peanut bunker on the Long Island and New Jersey shores this fall, if you were lucky enough to get into the blitzes and bass and bluefish gorging themselves into footballs, if you saw the whales in the Hudson, then you saw the effects of that reduction. Captain John McMurray, in his article, wrote, “Let me be clear that I absolutely believe that this 20% reduction on a fishery that uses spotter planes to systematically find and scoop entire schools of menhaden out of the water has resulted in the increased menhaden concentrations we are seeing now.”
Since 2012 however, the ASMFC approved a 10 percent increase in 2015-2016, and they’ve scheduled another 6.5 percent for next year. From McMurray’s article: “Both increases were based on a 2015 stock assessment, which indicated such increase would not result in ‘overfishing.’ All the anecdotal reports of increased abundance likely contributed to that decision as well. In other words, if there are more fish, industry should be able to kill more.”
After only a couple short years we already saw some of the effects of a better-regulated industry, and the benefits spread across not only the fishing captains, guides, anglers, whale watchers. The fishing may have been on fire, but the most important beneficiary was the marine life: the bass and bluefish, the whales, and the birds and crabs cleaning it all up.
But evidence of a direct link between leaving more fish in the water and the abundance we saw this fall is still anecdotal and empirical at best. Logically, the more fish left in the ocean would result in more fish down the line—that is, of course, disregarding any environmental factors and changes that may negatively affect fish populations. But that’s not how it’s viewed—yet. Again, from McMurray’s article:
“Stock assessment scientists have not been able to identify what they call ‘stock recruitment relationship,’ a mathematical relationship between the number of mature menhaden and the number of juvenile fish that survive. To be clear, they aren’t saying it doesn’t exist… they just can’t determine what it is.
What that means is that there is no scientific information that indicates the 20% reduction is responsible for current abundance, and so the other theory, which of course looks more attractive to industry and some managers, is that it could be more the result of environmental conditions.
While there may indeed have been good ocean conditions for them to come back, common sense should tell us that if you leave millions of pounds of fish in the water, well, there will be millions of pounds more fish in the water. And that this would likely result in future abundance/expansion.”
At this point it doesn’t look like there is a definite causal link—the scientists, at least according to McMurray, aren’t not saying it either, but they haven’t been able to pin down the abundance to a single source, and even if they could, it’s probably too soon to tell for certain. It probably is a combination of factors, but it’s a good bet that the 20 percent reduction is one of them. Without the scientific hard evidence, however, the industry (i.e. Omega) sees an opportunity to take more fish.
So where does that leave us now?
The ASMFC is now considering what’s called Amendment 3. One important thing to know is that, even with the 10 percent increase the ASMFC approved for 2015-2016, the management of menhaden is pointed toward actual management—meaning there are steps being taken to regulate the population as part of an ecosystem, and not just a product to be removed from the ocean. Meaning the environmental factors and predator/prey relationship with other species in the ocean will be part of the management plan. This is the objective of Amendment 3.
The Amendment is in the draft phase right now which is open for public comment, and that’s why it’s important to have our concerns voiced during this period. “The ASMFC is not like the council. The commission really needs to hear from the public big time on this one,” Jamie Pollack, the Mid-Atlantic Field Rep and my contact at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told me. Here’s the list of state meetings, and here’s the information for the New York meeting on 15 Thursday:
New York Department of Environmental Conservation
December 15, 2016; 6:30 PM
Freeport Memorial Library
144 West Merrick Road
Freeport, New York
Contact: Steve Heins at 631.444.0430
There’s a number of options on the table for Amendment 3 (the pre-draft document is here), but check out the “cheat sheet” that McMurray provided in his article. You can read the option in the PID, but it’s technical and kind of obscure to the layman, so here’s McMurray’s summary of viable options (Option A is a non-factor: that’s the status quo option):
Option B suggests using widely accepted precautionary guidelines for forage species, such as managing to a target of 75% of an unfished stock (in other words leaving a minimum 75% of the number of fish that were there before we started catching them), and ensuring the population never drops below 40 percent.
Option C suggests using the current single-species management until menhaden-specific ecosystem reference points are developed.
Option D is likely the most comprehensive solution. It’s really a combination of B and C. It would use the existing best scientific guidelines for managing forage species described above (e.g. leaving 75% of unfished biomass in the water and not letting it get below 40%), until menhaden-specific ecosystem reference points can be developed.
This is the best long-term solution, and the one we should support.
This is also the position over at Pew, according to Jamie Pollack. “The conservation of menhaden benefits everyone. Managing ‘the most important fish in the sea’ to account for their role as forage fish will enable the population to continue to grow, while increasing menhaden’s value to recreational fishing, commercial seafood, and tourism businesses that all depend on this important fish and its predators.”
We’re also looking to close a bycatch loophole in Issue 6 (Incidental Catch & Small Scale Fishery Allowance). There are millions of pounds of menhaden labeled as “bycatch” in other fisheries which don’t count toward the quota. “The problems this exemption seeks to address should be resolved through the reallocation [to the states] part of the Amendment,” says McMurray.
Finally we want to reduce the cap on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay (Issue 8). McMurray writes: “The goal of such a Bay-exclusive cap was to prevent all of the reduction fishery harvest from occurring in the Chesapeake Bay, a critical nursery area for menhaden, and to prevent localized depletion in the Bay.
The problem is, the reduction industry rarely even comes close to the cap. That’s because it’s too high.
So, the cap should be kept in Amendment 3, but cut in half (96 million pounds) – closer to current levels of catch – to protect against localized depletion and provide for those predators (and I’m thinking specifically about striped bass here) that depend on menhaden in the Bay.”
The objective for the ASMFC should be to do the most good. If you were out this fall you probably saw some things you haven’t seen in years, and despite the science lacking a direct link to the 20 percent reduction we achieved back in 2012, the evidence has been plain to many, and many who spend a lot more time on the water than me. I don’t care much for the reduction industry and Omega, who basically represents the arch-nemesis in this scenario. I don’t care for pseudo-science, I don’t care for them to scoop up whole schools of bunker and grind them up into fish pellets they’ll sell to fish farms in Asia and I don’t care for the disgusting tilapia and farmed shrimp the U.S. buys back as “seafood.” The Atlantic coast has some of the most prodigious and extensive waters in the world: our seafood is right here and the preservation of menhaden is a huge part of that.
And it’s not just about money: Omega will still keep their 80 percent of the quota or whatever it may be. But the recreational fishing industry saw a big boost from the bunker boom as well: McMurray talks about this himself. Guides like John McMurray and Tyler Nonn, party boats, retailers, and mom and pop tackle shops all benefit from a better regulated menhaden fishery. The recreational fishing industry creates way more work and dollars across a greater spectrum than the reduction industry could ever hope to achieve. This is why we need the ASMFC to manage menhaden as an ecosystem and not acquiesce to Omega and corporate lobbyists who have little interest in the long view and real benefits, some of which we are just starting to see this past fall. This is not the time to go backwards, and if the new Administration shapes up the way its looking, we’re going to be fighting a lot of battles in the future. Let’s not start losing now.
Send public comments on Amendment 3 to:
Megan Ware, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland St, Suite A-N, Arlington, VA 22201; 703.842.0741 (FAX) or at firstname.lastname@example.org (Subject line: Menhaden PID).