No Records Kept: The Potomac River Fisheries Commission’s Mysterious History on Menhaden

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The Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) has no record of the votes it has made regarding Atlantic menhaden, the controversial forage fish that has been called “the most important fish in the sea” because of its contribution to the diets of dozens of ecologically significant fish, mammals, and shorebirds.

PRFC Executive Secretary A.C. Carpenter confirmed to the Public Trust Project that he does not keep track of the votes he has cast on menhaden at meetings of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the multi-state agency that manages marine fish in state waters. He was unable to produce a record of his positions at the ASMFC, even for recent years.

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission is represented by equal numbers of delegates from Maryland and Virginia, which share jurisdiction of the Potomac River and its natural resources. Carpenter votes on behalf of the PRFC delegates when attending ASMFC regulatory meetings.

When it comes to menhaden, Maryland and Virginia do not get along. Carpenter is put in the position of standing between two warring powers whose perspective on “the most important fish in the sea” could not be more different.

Virginia is home to Omega Protein, an industrial harvesting company that catches a quarter to half a billion pounds of Atlantic menhaden annually, grinding them into oils and fishmeal for sale, largely to markets in Asia and Europe.

Maryland, on the other hand, banned the industrial menhaden fishery from its state waters in 1931, and has been a tireless advocate of menhaden conservation ever since.

Elected officials in Virginia have accepted campaign finance contributions from Omega Protein many years running, while officials at the highest levels of Maryland government have taken a public stance against the company’s massive harvest: Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has been a vocal advocate for responsible and timely management of menhaden. Attorney General Douglas Gansler has said that he is considering taking Omega Protein to court if the ASMFC does not cut back the allowable harvest of menhaden.

Because Maryland and Virginia are diametrically opposed on menhaden, the two states should cancel each other out on menhaden management when it comes to the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. Carpenter’s vote should be “null.”

But despite equal representation, a review of Carpenter’s comments and motions, recorded in ASMFC meeting minutes, suggests that he often comes down on one side — that of Virginia and the industrial menhaden fishery that exists on Virginia shores.

In August 2010, ASMFC Commissioners from Maryland voted to extend the harvest cap in the Chesapeake Bay, which keeps Omega Protein from netting more than 109,020 metric tons from the waters of the Bay where young menhaden come of age. A.C. Carpenter seconded a motion to delay action on the issue.

In November 2011, the menhaden management board was choosing a new target for the fishery – a contentious subject that prompted heated debate among ASMFC Commissioners. Chairman Louis Daniel of North Carolina introduced a vote on a motion made by Maryland that would set the target at 30 percent maximum spawning potential (MSP), a number that Daniel said was “consistent with the scientific literature.” Jack Travelstead of Virginia interjected a motion to change the 30 percent MSP to 20, which would allow the industry to catch more fish.

A.C. Carpenter voted along with Virginia. When that motion failed, Carpenter tried to split the difference by introducing a motion to set the target at 25 percent MSP.

In May 2012, the board was debating the timeframe for achieving the new fishing target of 30 percent MSP. Carpenter spoke on behalf of the most extreme option – ten years – which was favored by Virginia.

“I guess the reason I want to leave the ten in there is because we can fish well below the threshold and have a fairly stable fishery and stock without being right at the target every year. I think the ten-year timeframe is appropriate,” Carpenter said.

The delegation from Maryland had the opposite reaction to the proposed ten-year timeframe. Bill Goldsborough, who was appointed to the ASMFC by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, reminded the Commissioners that their guiding document mandates them to end overfishing and achieve the target to protect the menhaden resource. The Commission had just learned that overfishing had been occurring in 52 of the last 54 years.

“Ten years is incomprehensible to me, frankly. I think that would justifiably open this commission up to a lot of criticism,” Goldsborough said.

Nevertheless, Carpenter voted alongside Virginia keep the ten-year timeframe on the table. The motion passed.

An historical review of the ASMFC meeting minutes suggests that Carpenter’s unspoken alliance goes back years.

In 2001, the ASMFC voted to kick fishing industry representatives off the menhaden management board. But there were vocal holdouts who argued in favor of allowing industry members to continue regulating the menhaden fishery in which they a financial stake. Carpenter was one of them.

In the meeting minutes, he is recorded as saying, “I’ve spoken before on this issue and I would have to agree with Jack [Travelstead]…I have found the industry participation useful….”

Opponents argued that the menhaden board was the last fishery management board to allow industry representatives to openly participate in regulatory decisions. Industry participation in menhaden regulation, they said, was a throwback to a different era.

When I interviewed Carpenter in June, he echoed the official position of the state of Virginia on menhaden. He seemed relatively unconcerned with the menhaden stock, which has declined over 90 percent in the last 25 years.

“We have seen harvest levels in this realm back in the 1960s, only to see the mountains that we had in the ’70s and ’80s. This is not uncharted territory in terms of where we’ve been before,” Carpenter told me. “I’m not as concerned with the status of the stock as maybe some people are…I really don’t see the problem that we are spending so much time on.”

Carpenter’s voting record has not gone unnoticed by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission delegates.

“In the past couple of years, the Commission that he serves under has raised questions regarding how A.C. Carpenter casts his vote at ASMFC,” says Tom O’Connell, director of the Maryland Fisheries Service, who sits on the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. “There were people that thought that he was not representing the Commission, nor was he really asking for their input before the ASMFC meeting votes.”

O’Connell said that these concerns came from delegates representing both jurisdictions.

In response, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission adopted a policy in 2010 that requires the Executive Secretary to caucus with PRFC Commissioners present at ASMFC meetings before any votes are cast, and consider the positions of those PRFC members not present. It also requires that Carpenter be “as consistent with MD and VA on issues of mutual interest as possible,” and that he “consider the best available science as guidance.”

Still, the policy has not prevented the PRFC from siding with Virginia.

Part of the reason, PRFC Commissioner Dennis Fleming told me, is that delegates do not always reliably vote according to the best available science.

Robert Bowes, a charter boat captain from Maryland who is finishing up his second four-year term as a PRFC Commissioner, admitted in an interview that science is not what drives his voting decisions.  “I vote with what I feel in my gut,” he told me. “I have to rely on the netters and the people who catch menhaden. I have to rely on what they say.”

I asked him whether he ever ran into any opposition from Maryland officials. “I’ve been appointed to that commission, and I vote as I see fit. If someone cares to remove me from the commission that’s their choice,” Bowes said.

Maryland and Virginia are statutorily obligated to provide the PRFC with $50,000 every year. Both states have typically given well above that amount, with Maryland committing $140,000 annually, and Virginia giving $148,000.

For that money, the two states get A.C. Carpenter’s participation in the ASMFC deliberations, but they don’t get a record of his votes. In Maryland and Virginia, apparently, record keeping comes at a higher price.

 

Read the full text of the PRFC’s policy on voting at ASMFC meetings below: