The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will decide on a new management plan for Atlantic menhaden at a meeting near Baltimore on Monday.
Fishermen and environmentalists have a lot riding on how much of the resource is set aside for fishing, and how much is left for wildlife predators.
Known as Amendment 3, the new rule will set the future course for managing the forage fish species eaten by many other fish, birds like osprey, dolphins and whales.
The ASMFC must choose from several options for moving forward.
The fishing industry, organized by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, says menhaden is not an overfished species and predators like striped bass don’t depend on it.
It supports Option B, and wants fishermen to be able to take about 40 percent more than their limit of 200,000 metric tons per season to 280,000 metric tons, said Jeff Kaelin, of Lund’s Fisheries in Cape May, which sells menhaden as bait. He is chairman of ASMFC’s New Jersey Menhaden Advisory Panel.
On the other side are environmentalists led by the Pew Charitable Trusts, who argue predators need a lot of menhaden and predator populations rise and fall with menhaden populations, which have crashed due to overfishing in the past.
They support Option E and want the ASMFC to set ecological reference points, including a target to leave 75 percent of the unfished menhaden biomass in the water. They want a threshold “that results in swift and decisive Board action to rebuild the stock if biomass drops to or below 40 percent of unfished biomass,” Pew wrote.
Under Option E, the fishermen’s take would drop to about 147,000 metric tons a year, according to Kaelin.
But Pew said Option E does not specify how the catch should change. It wants environmental reference points met, but it doesn’t say how fast to get there and how much risk to take, Joseph Gordon, a senior manager for Pew Charitable Trusts, has said.
The ASMFC will decide whether to reserve significant amounts of menhaden for use by predator species other than humans.
“We are supporting Option B, which would use reference points that come out of the Beaufort Assessment Model used for several years, and updated this year. It determined the stock was not overfished,” said Kaelin.
Menhaden are also used for fertilizer, fish meal and fish oil for dietary supplements.
“The projection is we could take as much as 300,000 metric tons of American menhaden … with a 5 percent chance of overfishing,” Kaelin said.
He said Option B takes into account the needs of the ecosystem but recognizes natural mortality from predation, especially in the youngest fish fishermen leave.
“The fishery does not harvest age 0 or age 1. We fish on older fish,” said Kaelin. “The majority of young fish are eaten by striped bass and other predators. Something like 999 of every 1000 age 0 are eaten and don’t recruit into the fishery.”
Kaelin said humans only get 10 percent to 15 percent of the menhaden resource annually.
In August, ASMFC issued a press release saying a stock update “indicates the resource remains healthy; it is not overfished nor experiencing overfishing.”
But Pew argues Menhaden is so important to so many other predator species it must be managed more conservatively to avoid crises for other species.