The controversy surrounding the Atlantic Menhaden fishery is very complicated for some, yet very simple for others. It is complicated because the true state of the fishery is not fully understood by stakeholders in the commercial and bait fisheries, or by the advocacy groups that fight for the survival of the fish. This uncertainty is largely due to the inherent inaccuracy of the stock assessment for the Atlantic Menhaden. There is inaccuracy because the total species population is estimated based on how much is taken out of the water, not how much is left in the water. Many people believe that overfishing is not occurring, while others firmly believe it is. My position is that the issue can be simple: regardless of the true state of the fish, there are many ecological reasons promoting the longevity of this fishery that must be considered to view the fish as intrinsically valuable rather than instrumentally profitable. In other words, this fishery needs to be conserved even if it is healthy because it is such an important part of the food web in Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. In my research I explored how the perception of this fishery creates advocacy, which then leads to more public awareness, and how this perception has been formed and influenced. I bring in a comparison with Peru, a country with a similar fishing problem with the Peruvian Anchoveta, and how they have educated the public about its important ecological role and saved the fish by using its economic viability for human consumption. The goal for my was research to uncover the true reality of the Menhaden fishery, why it is in decline, and what this reality means for the movement to save this complicated little fish, the Atlantic Menhaden.
Before we delve into this issue, a background on the Menhaden is necessary to understand why this fishery is in the state it is today. This fish, argued to be the most important fish in the sea, has a tremendous historical influence. During his exploration of the Chesapeake, Captain John Smith would at times struggle to navigate his boat through masses of menhaden in Chesapeake Bay “lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.” Native Americans used menhaden to fertilize crops, calling the fish Munnawhatteaug, meaning fertilizer. This was the fish that was planted with corn seed by Pocahontas and Captain Smith for its oily, nutrient dense makeup. The Atlantic Menhaden was an extremely abundant food fish that lured Europeans to North American waters. They are members of the same family as herring and shad, and a represent a major part of the diets of most Atlantic predatory fish like Cod, Haddock, Halibut, Mackerel, Weakfish, Bluefish, Striped Bass, Swordfish, Tuna, and many marine birds and mammals, including porpoises, dolphins, and whales. During the industrial revolution Menhaden oil was used as an industrial lubricant because it was much cheaper than whale oil. Aside from oiling the industrial boom of the 19th century, products made from Menhaden were eventually used in cosmetics, dog food, linoleum, and dietary supplements to name a few. The many uses of this fish were the reason the population was tremendously reduced over time. In the early years of the United States, thousands of fishermen harvested Atlantic Menhaden and landed them into numerous processing plants that lined the entire east coast to make the fish into the more profitable products like fish oil and fish meal. This tragedy of the commons scenario rapidly depleted Menhaden populations along the Atlantic coast. There is no doubt that overfishing was occurring during the times when thousands of fishermen free to exploit this resource. However, when you look at the 150 ships for 33 processing facilities going after Menhaden in the 1950’s, to the 8 ships in pursuit of them today for only one processing facility, the burning question of overfishing that has created so much controversy may have a simple answer. That the true issue is localized depletion in the Chesapeake Bay, an important nursing grounds for Menhaden, where these fish are taken out of the water before they are able to reproduce.
One of the most controversial names in the Menhaden contention is Omega Protein. Based in Reedville, Virginia, Omega is the largest Menhaden processing facility on the east coast of North America. They are also the main contributor to the data collected for the annual Menhaden stock assessment, as they take around %80 of the total annual catch. Omega focuses it’s fishing around the mouth of the bay, which creates localized depletion. In 2008, the spark that led to a huge movement to save the Atlantic Menhaden occurred. The threshold model shows the line between mortality rate and spawning rate that determines whether overfishing is or is not occurring. Omega Protein crossed this threshold line by less than %1 in 2008 and the company was branded as an overfishing devil in our very own Chesapeake, robbing the bay and destroying the food chain foundation of the ecosystem.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the regulators (not conservationists) of all Atlantic fisheries, implemented a %20 reduction in the annual Menhaden catch limit because of this overfishing. It is important to note that the Atlantic Menhaden is a migratory fish that swims up and down the east coast from Nova Scotia to Florida, a tremendous distance of around 2000 miles. The data for the model that this threshold limit is based upon does not account for the populations that are caught by vast numbers bait fishermen north of the Chesapeake in states like New Jersey, but instead the data is gathered from Omega Protein focused around the mouth of the bay. Although using this data provides great information about the localized depletion that is occurring, it gives a very inaccurate assessment the entire species population, and should not be used to judge the actual state of the migratory fishery.
When the catch limit was lowered to the current threshold line was located on the threshold model graph it looked as though Omega had been overfishing for 32 out of the past 50 years. Thus, the conservation movement was propelled forward because there was a new perception of overfishing and Omega Protein was always to blame. However, Omega claims that although they take %80 of the Annual catch, they are only taking %2 of the total species biomass. Keeping in mind that Menhaden are a migratory species that are not all swimming into a death trap never to return, the Atlantic Menhaden populations are healthy away from the Chesapeake. This is because there are no other commercial fishing giants like omega protein anywhere else on the east coast but in Reedville, Virginia, at the door of the Chesapeake Bay. The rest of the Menhaden catching is done by much smaller scale operations, the remaining %20 of the annual catch being spread out along the entirety of the Atlantic east coast.
Why does Omega take so much fish out of the water? What it all comes down to is that Menhaden are a cheap fish that can be processed into more expensive products. The Omega Protein mantra is that they are producing goods of tremendous nutritional value and, despite the skepticism of conservationists, they actually are. The amount of pure fish oil protein that is produced at Omega is enough to overcome malnutrition in developing countries all over the world. It is the nutrition your body craves, but doesn’t necessarily need. This is the argument against Omega; taking so much of an important species out of the water is not truly necessary for human consumption of omega 3 fatty acids and protein. However, %70 of Omega’s fish products goes toward aquaculture, poultry, and livestock in the form of fishmeal. The whole idea behind the production of so much fishmeal is to turn less palatable protein into a more palatable protein (i.e. Atlantic menhaden to Atlantic salmon). This is all well and good but it still does not justify the necessity of taking millions of fish out of the water each year to feed animals that can, and have, survived by alternative means of nourishment. Lets not forget that chickens and pigs never historically ate fish until the use of fishmeal, and they were doing fine until then.
The presence of Atlantic Menhaden in the Chesapeake creates a link between the lower and upper levels of the Chesapeake Bay food web. This is because they are an important forage species for fish like Striped bass, Bluefish, and the rest of the organisms listed earlier in the second paragraph. In their first year of life, Menhaden and are filter feeders that feed on Phytoplankton. This is beneficial to the Bay ecosystem as it reduces nitrogen and Phosphorus levels and prevents algal blooms. Menhaden filter four gallons of water per minute is a big number conservationists love to go by, saying the fish is essentially the liver of the Bay. This is true in some regards but it is an outlook that does not account for the different life stages of the fish.
After their first year of life Menhaden are larger and thus begin to eat Zooplankton. This can have a negating effect of their initial role in the ecosystem. Since Zooplankton feed on Phytoplankton (algae), and Zooplankton is eaten by menhaden, there is naturally more Phytoplankton thriving in the water. Further, the Menhaden and producing more nitrogen waste from eating Zooplankton and nitrogen goes into the water. Atlantic menhaden leave the bay once they have grown to about one year of age, so their filtering of phytoplankton and eventual defecating of nitrogen moves along with the circle of life until next years spawn. However, when Menhaden leave the nursing grounds of the bay they caught by Omega Protein. These helpless little one-year-old fish have yet to spawn their next generation because they don’t reach sexual maturity until age three.
Here is the reality of the decline: The average Menhaden of reproductive age can produce around 250,000 eggs per year. Although the populations outside of the bay are healthy, it is because of this interference with the nursing grounds of the bay that the Atlantic Menhaden face a steady decline. What goes into the bay to grow and mature must come out to live a life in the sea and fulfill the only life goal they have which is to make more of themselves. This is not the case for the Atlantic Menhaden, as localized depletion cuts millions of fish lives short before they are able to reproduce. The realistic solution, understanding that Menhaden fishing is far from over, is to revert harvesting older menhaden further north so that the ones in the bay can grow to sexual maturity and spawn more Menhaden. Older menhaden have more oil and mass (fish oil and potential fishmeal), so it makes sense that they would go for the big kahunas so to speak. However, it is unknown whether this would have any positive effect or if it would just shift the pendulum to harvesting a different yet equally important part in the circle of life.
As a parallel comparison to the beloved Menhaden, the vast schools of Peruvian Anchoveta off the west coast of South America have been depleted much the Atlantic Menhaden has. Similarly, the Anchoveta also plays a very important role in the regional ecology as it is prey to numerous organisms like Humboldt Penguins, Fur Seals, Dolphins, Marlins, Guanay Birds, Pelicans, and the list goes on. El Centro para la Sustentabilidad Ambiental (The Center for Environmental Sustainability), or CSA, is an environmental organization based in the city of Lima that is focused on the sustainable development of Peru. They have recognized the importance of the Anchoveta to the Peruvian ecosystem and have taken it upon themselves to help the fish by changing its social stigma and in turn the way it is used as a resource. Instead of taking a regulatory approach to manage the fishery by way of restriction, CSA drove a movement to transition the processing of Anchoveta into fishmeal for poultry, livestock, and aquaculture, to processing the fish for culinary uses in meals for direct human consumption. CSA formed a partnership with a top chef, a biologist and a graphic designer in order to tackle this issue. With their combined effort they were able to devise a plan to reawaken the cultural connections to Anchoveta in order to decrease harvest. If the Anchoveta is processed for direct human consumption the fish has a greater added value. This increased value generated by a more laborious processing procedure allows for lower catches while maintaining the same economic viability of the fish. This advocacy based management technique for the Peruvian Anchoveta has been successful, but it is uncertain that a similar approach would work in the Chesapeake. The fight to conserve the Menhaden is alive and well, but is it enough to overrun the system and standards by which Menhaden are fished, processed, and used in order to increase the population?
There are many advocacy groups for the Atlantic Menhaden, two of the most prominent being the Coastal Conservation Association, and the American Sportfishing Association. These groups and many like them are comprised of anglers and sport fishermen who want to save the Menhaden population from crashing because if it does then other species that depend on them for food will suffer. The groups working to conserve the menhaden want to have a healthy ecosystem and a food web with some integrity. The 20% reduction in the catch quota to be implemented in 2013 was a major win for conservationists. Richen Brame, CCA Atlantic Fisheries director believes that “Clearly these fish do indeed need to be managed, and managed conservatively. The debate now becomes about how conservatively should they be managed, and that is a much better scenario for menhaden, for sportfish and for anglers. It took a very long time and a lot of work by many, many groups, but the ASMFC did the right thing today.” Now, with the ball rolling for menhaden conservation, how will the public be educated on the cultural, ecological, and economical importance of the Menhaden, and what effect could vast public awareness have on the future of this fishery? This is the trying task that conservationists and advocates face today.
The Atlantic Menhaden is a fish that is surrounded by controversy, uncertainty, and contention. They are a fish that is locally depleted in the Chesapeake Bay before they are able to reproduce, and the data from this area is what currently represents the entire east coast population. This population of a migratory schooling fish is impossible to determine at any given time. However, with localized depletion occurring in such a crucial place for the Menhaden the fishery is suffering massive losses and no exponential grown that would be expected from a fish with such an immense spawning ability. The future of this fishery won’t be certain until the effects of the %20 quota reduction are seen in 2014, and even then it is hard to be certain where the fishery stands. Nevertheless, advocacy for this fish is a good thing because of its important ecological role. The fish should be intrinsically valued for providing the food for so many other species we know and love, instead of instrumentally valued as a mere transit protein source to grow tastier protein and an oily dietary supplement for people because we wont eat the fish directly. I stand for the rejuvenation of the Atlantic Menhaden, not because I profit from the fish, nor do I often fish recreationally, I stand because it is a very important fish that should be treated as such. The Menhaden symbolizes the life of the water, as it gives life to so many fish and birds that prey upon it. Without this fish, the food web would change for the worse. This is why I stand for prosperity of the Atlantic Menhaden.
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