2017-12-14 / News

Ocean State goes to bat for menhaden

Save The Bay says fish is crucial to health of Narragansett Bay

A fishing boat is swarmed by hungry seagulls earlier this month in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay. A recent federal increase in the menhaden catch limit is expected to be a boost for commercial fishermen. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN A fishing boat is swarmed by hungry seagulls earlier this month in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay. A recent federal increase in the menhaden catch limit is expected to be a boost for commercial fishermen. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Menhaden aren’t the most popular fish in the Atlantic Ocean, but an increase in their catch limit could make the Narragansett Bay population more attractive to commercial fishermen.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has ruled at least 0.5 percent of the quota of menhaden should be allocated to each state. That increased the limit in Rhode Island waters from 0.2 percent.

The board also ruled to increase the amount of fish that could be caught in American waters annually by 8 percent, from 200,000 metric tons to 218,000 metric tons. Finally, it deferred a decision on implementing a new management standard for the species.

The latter two decisions were a relative disappointment to Save The Bay and its executive director, Jonathan Stone, who says that menhaden are “one of the most important fish in the sea.” Stone was among the Rhode Island delegates who attended the board’s mid-November meeting in Maryland. Along with other environmentalists, Stone asked the board to change the menhaden’s management from a single-species model to a conservation standard because of its role on the food chain.

“Rather than maximize the allowable catch, it maximizes the ecosystem benefits that come from the fishery,” he said.

A feeder species

The board was expected to make changes to the conservation measures that were put in place for Atlantic menhaden seven years ago. Under current federal law, most species of fish are managed by maintaining an annual max as long as that species can sustain its population.

Stone anecdotally described the menhaden as “one of the most crucial species in the bay.” He gives the small species that moniker because of its role as a feeder species for larger fish, marine mammals and birds of prey, including ospreys.

“The fish swims up here, it gobbles up that plankton and then it’s converted into protein,” Stone said. “Then they are off and eaten by other fish that we care a lot more about, like striped bass, flounder and lobster.”

Jamestown resident and retired state biologist Chris Powell agreed with Stone’s assessment of the menhaden’s importance to the food chain. However, he added that bigger fish do not rely solely on the species for dinner.

“If you look at the diet of things like striped fish and tautog, the only thing they eat is not menhaden,” he said. “They’ll eat other things. Atlantic silversides, for example.”

Menhaden, which is part of the herring family, is native to the entire Atlantic seaboard. The fish tends to concentrate around the mouth of the Providence River in the spring and fall but are found throughout the bay in the summer. As a migratory fish, schools of menhaden spend the warmer months in Rhode Island before moving south as the winter approaches. They typically do not grow large, usually topping out at 9 inches in length while weighing under a pound.

Their diet also has the benefit of removing excess nitrogen from the water, the gas having been produced by the same plankton in which they feed. Stone said an adult menhaden will filter 2,000 to 3,500 gallons of water a day. He compared that number to the production of an oyster, which can filter about 40 to 50 gallons a day.

Powell said menhaden are a fast-growing fish and produce a large volume of eggs, which maintains its healthy population.

“If you drive them down in numbers, they can build up pretty quickly because they are such a big spawner and produce millions of young,” he said. “They can recover pretty quickly as long as you don’t drive them below a certain point.”

Menhaden are edible to humans, but their small size means they typically are not caught as food. However, that does not mean they aren’t sought by fishermen. The schools typically stick close to the surface to feed on plankton, where they often are caught by commercial fishermen. The fish have several commercial uses. They serve as bait to lobstermen and also can be processed into ground fishmeal or protein oil.

Step in right direction

Although the specific changes that Stone and his colleagues had wanted to implement were tabled, he said it was “not the worst thing in the world.”

“They had a sound basis for doing that,” Stone said. “They’re waiting for additional research to support the establishment of those reference points. We would have liked to have seen them move more quickly, but they have expressed commitment to adopting ecological reference points.”

Although he disagreed with the quota increase, he said it could have been much worse. He said there was pressure on the board from some states that had a majority allocation of the Atlantic quota, such as Virginia. That state is the location of the factories for the Omega Protein corporation, which catches a large percentage of the menhaden on the East Coast, including the Narragansett Bay population, for its protein oils.

Stone, however, was glad to see other states receive a minimum allocation of the catch limit, and noted Rhode Island’s 0.3 percent increase was relatively substantial. Previously, he said, 94 percent of that allocation was split between Virginia and New Jersey, with the other 13 Atlantic states vying for the remaining amount.

“We’re happy about the reallocation,” Stone said. “While we’re not thrilled with the increase, we recognize that the board acted reasonably conservatively in the context of pressure to increase the catch.”

He was also pleased that the board decreased the amount that could be caught in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where their primary spawning ground is located, by 45 percent.

Powell, who was a member of the commission for several years, is aware of the politics that could have driven the changes.

“You got to let the science do the work,” he said. “Management decisions should be driven by science. Unfortunately, management decisions are often driven by politics and money. Omega Protein is the only company left that takes menhaden. The board increased the quota, probably not based on science. Those people are politically driven sometimes. Omega has a large voice in the whole issue. Time will only tell if they were right or not.”

The changes that were made this year marked some of the first adjustments to the commercial catch limit of menhaden since they were implemented in 2012. That’s when the board found the East Coast population had been depleted because of overfishing. Also, water quality within the Chesapeake didn’t help, Stone said.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is an interstate agency that was founded in 1942 and chartered by Congress in 1950. The members comprise three commissioners for each of the 15 states that border the Atlantic Ocean; an appointee of the governor, a member of the state’s legislature and an environmental director that oversees fishing for a state agency.

Stone said he would return to the board’s meeting in 2019 to lobby for the ecological model. He also hopes to see the commercial catch limit either maintained or decreased.

“The whole point of this exercise is to have more fish along the East Coast,” he said. “It’s very clear from the research that more menhaden means more fish of other species, more birds, more whales. All of that is great for the economy, it’s great for the environment and it’s great for every state up and down the East Coast.”

Return to top