Has the Atlantic Fisheries Commission Industry-Proofed its Scientific Process

Scientists in charge of determining how many menhaden are in the Atlantic Ocean will convene this week under a fresh set of public participation guidelines. The new rules outline clear procedures for hearing the opinions of the fishing industry and other interest groups, without undue influence over the scientific process conducted by government researchers.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the regulatory agency that manages menhaden and sets policy for the fishery, is in charge of conducting the official stock assessment for menhaden, which determines the size of the menhaden population and whether those fish are likely to spawn as expected. State and federal fisheries scientists are expected to make significant strides towards developing the assessment at a two-day workshop on June 26-27 in Hanover, Maryland.

Before the ASMFC finalized the new guidelines last month, the Commission had not updated its public guidance document in 11 years — and it showed. At a menhaden stock assessment workshop last year, industry consultants were allowed to interject their own opinions and steer the discussion.

“There are many examples of technical committee meetings that didn’t go as well as we had hoped,” said ASMFC director Bob Beale. “There were examples of science being submitted at various stages in the [stock] assessment process. If industry or another group brings forward science and it isn’t accepted, this new document takes away the possibility for the perception of inequality.”

The new guidelines allow public comment only in designated blocks of time, rather than throughout the process. They also require outside research to be approved by the ASMFC’s management boards before the scientific committees review the material, ostensibly safeguarding scientists from the political decision-making of fishery management.

The menhaden stock assessment process this year carries a lot of weight.

Ever since the ASMFC voted to reduce the amount of fishing allowed on Atlantic menhaden in December 2012, industry representatives have been waiting impatiently for the results of the next stock assessment, which will estimate how many menhaden are in the Atlantic Ocean. An industry press release called the 2014 stock assessment “critical,” and reiterated their belief that the most recent stock assessment, completed in 2012, was “deeply flawed.”

Menhaden, known as the most important fish in the sea because they feed dozens of marine predators, have been subject to overfishing for the better part of a century. To relieve pressure on wild menhaden, the ASMFC set a limit on fishing and reduced the allowable harvest of menhaden by 20 percent from previous levels.

Whether that limit will stand depends on the results of the next stock assessment, scheduled for completion in 2014. If the menhaden population is larger than previous estimates suggest, regulators could decide to change the current fishing limit — or even abandon it altogether.

The Public Trust Project will be live-blogging the proceedings of the stock assessment meeting this week. Tune in as we provide real-time commentary from Hanover, Maryland, and document whether the public participation guidelines are being implemented. Watch this space for updates, or  follow us on Twitter, beginning at 1 p m on June 26th.