Little Fish, Long Wait: Where we Stand on Menhaden Conservation

Menhaden_fishing_-_purse_seine_boats

In an historic vote in November 2011, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided to reduce the allowable harvest of Atlantic menhaden by as much as 37 percent from 2010 levels. This is the most significant management action ever taken for Atlantic menhaden, and has been lauded as a “science-based” decision that will leave hundreds of millions of pounds of menhaden in the water to provide valuable ecosystem services.

Now the little fish has a long wait.

For the cut to take affect, the ASMFC must take a number of subsequent actions, and the hard work of setting management measures and allocating the harvest begins. This process will likely take up to a year. Menhaden Coalition members are hopeful that the cutback will be implemented before or during the 2013 fishing season.

This month, marine resource agencies from states along the coast have nominated fishery managers to the Plan Development Team, a group that is in the process of drafting a public information document (PID), which includes “preliminary discussions of biological, environmental, social and economic information,” and lays out the various options for achieving the cutback in harvest. This document should be released by the ASMFC the week of January 23rd.

At the ASMFC meeting on February 8th 2012, the Menhaden Management Board is expected to review and approve the PID, and send it out for public comment at hearings along the coast. Eastern states will set times and dates for hearings, held between February and May, where concerned citizens can weigh in on the options, which include season closures, restricting vessel size, and others. At the ASMFC meeting in May 2012, the board will weigh the input of citizens and stakeholders and provide specific instructions for drafting Amendment II to the Fishery Management Plan for menhaden. Presumably, the draft of Amendment II will then be reviewed at the Fall 2012 ASMFC meeting.

What the Menhaden Management Board did not do at their November meeting was task the Plan Development Team with coming up with specific options for allocating the available fish between Omega Protein and the commercial bait operations up and down the coast. Omega Protein currently accounts for 80 percent of the coast-wide menhaden catch, whereas the purse seine or bait fishery accounts for 20 percent. Whether these percentages will be reflected in the allocation will be of key importance. The board has not yet determined how and when to discuss issues of allocation.