The fate of a small but important fishery for Delaware rests in the hands of a commission that will decide in November how to manage its Atlantic population.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering different ways for how to manage the stock of atlantic menhaden in the ocean. Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife held a hearing on menhaden Thursday night, asking for opinions on how to better manage menhaden along the coast.
Menhaden are currently managed as a single species, but changes to the management plan focus on how it affects other species in the ocean as well. If there aren’t enough menhaden in the ocean, fish that feed off of it could die as a result.
Chris Klarich, the campaign manager for the Delaware Nature Society, says he wants the commission to adopt an interim and immediate benchmark that sets catch limits for the species so it won’t be overfished.
“A lot of times they are really the linchpin in our ecosystem’s food web. They’re forage fish with predators such as bluefish, whales, osprey, all relying on them to live,” Klarich said.
He continued, "By adopting the ecological reference points, we’ll be protecting menhaden from overfishing, providing for predator needs and helping restoring the health of this important resource," Klarich said.
In Delaware, menhaden are almost exclusively the bait for the crabbing industry, said John Clark, a fisheries administrator for the Division of Fish and Wildlife. The state has a quota of 6,000 lbs per vessel per day as a bycatch allowance, about .01 percent of the quota allowed in the Atlantic.
“We’re in one of those situations where our harvest for menhaden is very low,” Clark said.
He continued, “What a lot of people were thinking [Thursday] — if Virginia had less for its menhaden quota and we had more, our guys would fill the gap for the bait. But of course it’s not that simple,” Clark said. “Virginia has the infrastructure for catching huge amounts of menhaden and freezing it as bait.”
Most of the watermen and environmental groups that attended the meeting on menhaden agreed on adopting an interim and immediate benchmark. According to Clark, 14 voted in favor of this option, while five voted in favor of the other four choices. The majority were in favor of adopting a target of 75 percent unfitted biomass and a threshold of 40 percent unfitted biomass to manage the species.
Target, Clark said, is the goal for where the menhaden’s mortality should be. If the fishing mortality rate exceeds the threshold, that’s when overfishing of the species happens.
“A total allowable catch increased by 30-40-50 percent would have almost a zero probability of exceeding the threshold, but a 100 percent probability of exceeding the target no matter what we did,” Clark said. “Do you increase the total allowable catch knowing you’re getting further from the target but knowing you have a huge cushion before you get to the threshold?”
Chris Bason, the director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, said the center supports the part of the management plan that considers an interim and immediate benchmark to set catch limits because it “focuses on using the best available science.”
“It’s an approach that protects the fish population to keep it large while allowing fishing. Keeping it large will support the rest of the ecosystem and support its important role in the ecosystem to bigger fish to dolphins and whales,” Bason said.
Joseph Gordon, the senior manager for U.S. Ocean Conservation-Mid-Atlantic for the Pew Charitable Trusts said there’s a lot at stake if menhaden aren’t properly managed and catch limits are permitted to grow dramatically.
“There could be huge increases that would be likely very unsustainable for predators in the ecosystem. Species like striped bass are considered at the threshold of where we would want them to be from a management perspective and this would be taking one of their primary food sources from the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere,” Gordon said.
The commission is taking public comments on how to manage menhaden through Oct. 20. They’ll decide how to move forward with managing the population on Nov. 13.
The draft amendment for managing menhaden can be found here.