Fu­ture of men­haden to be de­cided this week

Panel to vote on who gets to catch fish that is source of food, fish oils

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Liz Bowie

It’s a fish that al­most never ends up on din­ner plates and isn’t widely known among the gen­eral pub­lic.

That didn’t stop 127,000 peo­ple who care deeply about the fu­ture of men­haden from writ­ing to the At­lantic States Marine Fish­eries Com­mis­sion to tell mem­bers how they should vote when they meet in Baltimore on Mon­day and Tues­day to de­cide how to man­age the fish­ery for the oily, bony fish along the East Coast. The vote could set a fu­ture course that dic­tates who gets to catch men­haden.

The writ­ers in­cluded New York chefs who serve striped bass in their restau­rants, bird­ers who cher­ish the os­prey nests along the coast­lines, and kayak guides who want plen­ti­ful men­haden stock to at­tract the dol­phins their clients want to see. The bass, os­prey and dol­phins all feed on men­haden.

Com­mer­cial fish­er­man who catch men­haden in nets in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and along the At­lantic coast also weighed in. Some of the fish are frozen and sold for bait, end­ing up in lob­ster and crab pots from Maine to Mary­land. Many are pro­cessed into fish oils, an­i­mal feed and di­etary sup­ple­ments.

“They came from ev­ery­where and from all kinds of peo­ple, from all dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties,” said Ed­ward Houde, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence in Solomons, of the com­ments mailed and emailed to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. “Peo­ple are con­cerned and want to make sure that ecosys­tem is healthy.”

Men­haden thrive in coastal ar­eas from Florida to Maine, in­clud­ing the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, and are food for species as di­verse as whales and ea­gles. Cur­rently, the fish­ery is man­aged un­der guide­lines de­signed to keep the pop­u­la­tion sta­ble. Lev­els are set that re­strict the tons of fish that com­mer­cial fish­er­men can take in one year. Once that limit is caught com­mer­cial fish­ing must stop.

“When we as­sess that health of the stock we just look at how many men­haden are in the wa­ter,” said Me­gan Ware, fish­ery man­age­ment plan co­or­di­na­tor for At­lantic Men­haden for the fish­eries com­mis­sion.

But fish­eries sci­en­tists, like Houde, ar­gue that the health of the whole eco­log­i­cal sys­tem needs to be con­sid­ered.

Mod­els that he and a group of other sci­en­tists have worked on re­cently show that some species, in­clud­ing striped bass and tuna, might be more abun­dant if the men­haden pop­u­la­tion was al­lowed to grow. Men­haden don’t grow to more than 10 inches long and, like sar­dines and her­ring, are a for­age fish.

“All these big preda­tor fish and ea­gles and ospreys all have a high per­cent­age of men­haden in their di­ets,” Houde said. “Peo­ple are con­cerned about the over­fish­ing of men­haden.”

Large quan­ti­ties of men­haden have been taken from the coastal wa­ters and es­tu­ar­ies along the East Coast since 1850. As a re­sult, Houde said, it’s hard to know whether val­ued species of fish and birds might be­come more abun­dant if men­haden catches were more re­stricted.

A re­cently re­leased pa­per by Houde, Tom Miller at the Ch­e­sa­peake Bi­o­log­i­cal Laboratory, and An­dre Buch­heis­ter, now at Hum­boldt Univer­sity, out­lines their find­ings — based on com­puter mod­el­ing — that fish­ing on men­haden can take a toll on some of the big­ger fish, although not blue­fish.

Ware said there are sev­eral al­ter­na­tive fish­ing guide­lines the com­mis­sion will vote on that for the first time would be­gin to reg­u­late men­haden catches based on the needs of the ecosys­tem. Con­ser­va­tion­ists sup­port such a move. “This is one of the few fish that birds and peo­ple don’t have to com­pete for — as small, ined­i­ble, high fat con­tent fish, marine wildlife are men­haden’s only preda­tors,” said David O’Neil, chief con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cer at the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety. “It’s a no-brainer. Leave more men­haden in the ocean for birds and other wildlife that feed on men­haden, and bald ea­gles, os­prey, striped bass, tuna, whales and other wildlife thrive.”

Kate Wilke, a Na­ture Con­ser­vancy fish­eries sci­en­tist, said her or­ga­ni­za­tion sup­ports tak­ing the new ap­proach.

“I think we have made great, great progress in the last 10 years, go­ing from no-limit to then defin­ing a har­vest limit in 2012,” she said. “We are hop­ing to build on that suc­cess and now de­fine those har­vest lim­its based on men­hadens’ im­por­tant role in the ecosys­tem.”

For the com­mer­cial fish­ing in­dus­try, though, the jobs that in­volve pro­cess­ing men­haden are im­por­tant to pre­serve. Omega Pro­tein Inc., which has a plant in Reedville, Va. — lo­cated on the aptly named Men­haden Road — con­sumes more than 100,000 tons of the catch each year. That rep­re­sents nearly three quar­ters of the to­tal catch of men­haden.

Omega Pro­tein em­ploy­ees sent a pe­ti­tion to the com­mis­sion ear­lier this week, urg­ing it to pro­tect the jobs con­nected to catch­ing and pro­cess­ing men­haden at their plant just off the Ch­e­sa­peake, south of the Po­tomac River.

The Hous­ton-based com­pany is­sued a state­ment Fri­day call­ing for the fish­eries com­mis­sion to main­tain cur­rent men­haden man­age­ment mea­sures un­til more re­search is done on the fish­ery. It noted that the fish­eries com­mis­sion’s own men­haden as­sess­ments have not found them over­fished.

Beyond the de­ci­sion on how to man­age the men­haden, the fish­eries com­mis­sion also will take up how the to­tal al­lowed catch will be al­lo­cated to each state. Be­cause of the large ton­nage that goes to Omega Pro­tein, Vir­ginia gets the largest al­lo­ca­tion; New Jer­sey is sec­ond and Mary­land third.

Mary­land wa­ter­men’s catch amounts to only 1.67 per­cent of the en­tire catch on the East Coast, said Robert T. Brown, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Wa­ter­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion. Wa­ter­men work­ing in the Mary­land por­tion of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay use only pound nets which are set for the sea­son in one lo­ca­tion, usu­ally in about 18 feet of wa­ter, he said.

Brown said that since Mary­land’s to­tal catch is so small — about 2,800 tons — it has no ef­fect on the health of the species.

“What we are afraid of is that we will not get enough quota to fish the whole sea­son,” he said. “We are main­tain­ing. We can sur­vive with what we got now. We can’t stand to have any­thing more taken away from us.”

Brown, who catches men­haden and striped bass, also known as rock­fish, will be at the com­mis­sion meet­ings on Mon­day and Tues­day to see what hap­pens.

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