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Big Day for a Little Fish

Managers set a course for a critical forage species

By David Sikorski, Chairman
CCA Maryland Government Relations Committee

For more than a decade, fishermen, and leaders in the conservation community have been working hard to promote and initiate ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. Single species fisheries management is the norm, but any good fisherman knows that the fish we pursue are part of an ecosystem, so shouldn't we be able to find a management structure that better matches such a system?

Stock abundance, catch estimates, natural mortality, and many other statistics and scientific studies go into our current fisheries management plans, but even the best plans, and the data that goes in to them, can be better.

The Atlantic menhaden, sometimes referred to as the "most important fish in the sea" is a keystone species in the Atlantic and one with its fair share of fisheries management conflicts surrounding it. Menhaden are an important source of food, also known as forage, for nearly all of the most valuable predatory fish that we fishermen pursue. They are also very important to many small local fishing communities, and one large industrial fishing operation, Omega Protein.

Last May, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, (ASMFC), initiated Amendment 3 to the Atlantic menhaden fisheries management plan (FMP), which finally started the process towards managing menhaden based on their role in the ecosystem. In the late summer and early fall, two work groups comprised of ASMFC menhaden board members, and representatives of various stakeholder groups begin to flesh out what Amendment 3 might look like.

For classical single species management, managers and scientists are tasked with determining a sustainable level of yield from the fishery, otherwise known as maximum sustainable yield (MSY). In simple terms, scientists determine how much of the stock can be harvested and still leave enough biomass of fish in the water to sustain the necessary level of abundance. What they determine is the proper yield is then divided up, or allocated, between the states or amongst the various sectors. Determining the allocation of the allowed harvest is difficult in its own right, but something that managers are more than used to. Essentially the only factor considered is how many pounds or fish are taken out of the stock.

Forage fish management should be different. Obtaining MSY should be less important than maintaining abundance. Menhaden fulfill two primary roles in the ecosystem: 1) They are filter feeders that literally convert sunlight into protein by feeding on microscopic plants and 2) they are the primary prey species for most predatory fish, birds and mammals. The essential roles of menhaden - a primary filter feeder and prey species - are all based on the abundance of the menhaden stock.

Thus what is left in the water after harvest is critical, not just what is taken out of the water.

With ecosystem based management, a different scientific methodology is needed to better determine what should be harvested, and what should be left to sustain menhaden and the valuable role they play in the marine food web and ecosystem. At this point the managers, scientists, and stakeholders are split on what is the best path forward.

As you might imagine, while the concept of ecosystem management is relatively simple, implementation is complex. The important point is how to determine the ecosystem needs first and the allowable harvest would be what is left over. There is yet another scientific committee working on this (The Biological Ecological Reference Point (BERP) work group. They are looking into management models that would help them develop reference points (essentially guideposts) that would be the standard for management. But the models they are looking at would take several years to develop.

In the interim there is a relatively simple system called the Lenfest Approach which employs a common-sense method for how conservatively a forage fish species should be managed after taking into account such things as the life history of a species. It provides a basic rule of thumb for what percentage of the biomass of forage should be left in the water. For menhaden, that magic number is 75%, and is the option that the Coastal Conservation Association supports as the best management ready option for ecosystem based management.

By choosing this option, managers can ensure that enough menhaden are left in the water to reproduce, provide ample forage, and fulfill their role in the ecosystem. Yet the scientists have not recommended the Lenfest Approach as an interim management measure and there is the danger it won't be included in the management options they are considering.

The ASMFC is holding its 75th Annual meeting in St. Augustine this week, and the Menhaden Management Board will be able to keep Amendment 3 on track only if they task staff with preparing a Public Information Document (PID) to be approved for release at the February 2016 meeting. This PID should include all potential options for future management and provide the public an opportunity to give input on all long term and interim management options. If the PID is not initiated, ecosystem based management will be delayed. If the Lenfest option is not included, a simple and common sense approach to ecosystem based management will be left behind.
 

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A report from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force

Ecosystem
The Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North
America, is home to many ecologically and economically
important fish and shellfish and is a nursery for larvae
and juveniles that eventually recruit to the coastal ocean.
In the local Native American language, the Chesapeake
is the "Great Shellfish Bay," and historical harvests of
oysters and blue crabs support that description. The bay
is stressed by a multitude of human activities, however.
Overloads of nutrients, shoreline and riparian habitat
modifications, and sediment loading have led to eutrophication,
hypoxia, declines in sea grasses, and loss of
habitat. There is heavy fishing effort by commercial and
recreational sectors, and stocks of several species have
collapsed under multiple stresses. The eastern oyster, an
icon in the bay's history, is nearly gone; shortnose and
Atlantic sturgeons are nearly extirpated; and four alosine
species (shad, river herring) have been reduced to small
fractions of their former abundance. On a positive note,
the once-depleted striped bass stock was rebuilt, and
piscivorous birds, such as osprey and bald eagles, have
rebounded and are abundant.
Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), a small,
herring-like fish that is key prey for piscivores, is the most
important forage species in the bay. The Chesapeake
supports a large biomass of age 1-2 menhaden and a
large contingent of age 0 juveniles, which recruit to the
bay as larvae from ocean spawning. Historically, the bay
supplied more than 65 percent of menhaden recruitment
to the migratory coastal population (Menhaden Species
Team 2009). Recruitment of menhaden to the bay has
been consistently low for the past two decades.
A second key forage species is the bay anchovy (Anchoa
mitchilli), a short-lived species that is the most abundant
fish along the Atlantic coast of North America from Cape
Cod to Yucatán (Able and Fahay 2010). Bay anchovy
is not fished but is important prey for virtually all
piscivores. Numbers of bay anchovy in the Chesapeake
Bay total in the tens of billions (Jung and Houde
2004). Other small pelagic fishes, such as atherinids,
are abundant but not fished. Shad and river herring
juveniles (Alosa spp.) historically were abundant and
provided important alternative forage but have declined
precipitously in recent decades.
A diverse assemblage of predators consumes key forage
species in the bay. Predators include striped bass
(Morone saxatilis), bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), and
weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) as well as osprey (Pandion
haliaetus), bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), double-
crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), gannets
(Morus spp.), loons (Gavia spp), terns (Sternidae), gulls
(Laridae), and herons (Ardeidae) (Menhaden Species
Team 2009). The bay's carrying capacity for forage fish is
unknown, as are the amounts of these fish required to
sustain predators at high levels of abundance.
Interannual variability in level of freshwater flow
into the bay plays a critical role in determining its
Chesapeake Bay: Undervalued
Forage Species and Concerns of
Localized Depletion
A report from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force 43
productivity and its variable abundances of estuarine
fishes. Atlantic menhaden historically has the highest
recruitment of age 0 juveniles in years with relatively
low freshwater flow and warm temperatures during
winter and spring, at the time menhaden larvae enter
the bay (Kimmel et al. 2009, Wood and Austin 2009).
Fisheries
The bay has a long history of fishing, with reported landings
(commercial and recreational) of fish and shellfish
exceeding 300,000 tonnes annually in the 20th century
(CBFEAP 2006).
Landings of many species declined progressively in
the late 20th century. Catches became dominated by
blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and Atlantic menhaden
(Appendix C, Figure 3),* which is key prey for piscivorous
fish and birds. Menhaden are targeted by the bay's
biggest fishery (by volume), in which they are reduced to
fish meal and oil or are used for bait in other fisheries.
The reduction fishery, once coastwide, has contracted in
the past half-century to center in the Chesapeake Bay,
where a single factory processes the catch. This reduction
fishery, conducted by purse-seine vessels, yielded
more than 100,000 tonnes annually through much of the
20th century (Smith 1999).
Management
The single, migratory, coastwide population of Atlantic
menhaden is managed by the Atlantic States Marine
Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which for years had
judged menhaden to be neither overfished nor experiencing
overfishing. However, management now acknowledges
that overfishing of the coastwide stock occurred in
many years during recent decades (ASMFC 2010, 2011a),
precipitating a call for action and a plan to lower the
coastwide target and threshold fishing mortality rates
for Atlantic menhaden. Menhaden abundance within the
bay itself has not been estimated, but heavy fishing has
led to concerns by recreational fishermen, managers, and
the public regarding localized depletion of menhaden
and their attendant losses of ecosystem services as prey
and filterers (Menhaden Species Team 2009).
Historically, few regulatory measures to control landings
and fishing mortality guided the menhaden fishery
(ASMFC 2010). Purse-seine fishing, allowed within the
bay only in Virginia's waters, is regulated by seasons
and mesh-size standards. A cap of 109,020 tonnes, the
average catch in the bay over the previous five years,
was placed on the fishery in Virginia's waters of the
bay in 2006 in response to public outcry over localized
depletion, despite ASMFC's assurance at the time that
the coastwide stock was not overfished or experiencing
overfishing (Menhaden Species Team 2009, ASMFC
2010). The coastwide stock assessment does not consider
dynamics, demographics, or depletion of menhaden at
local scales such as in the Chesapeake Bay. Hence, there
is no spatially explicit estimate of menhaden abundance,
and it is unknown whether current levels of menhaden
fishing within the bay are sustainable.
In 2011, the Menhaden Management Board of the
ASMFC proposed a draft addendum to the menhaden
management plan requiring a threshold fishing mortality
rate that would set F at a level to maintain 15 percent
of maximum spawning potential (MSP), with a target F
of 30 percent MSP (ASMFC 2011b). The recent average
level of F = 9 percent MSP is now recognized as too risky
for sustainable fishing and may compromise menhaden's
role as prey in the coastal ecosystem. The proposed
amendment was approved (ASMFC 2011c). More conservative
management by the ASMFC is needed, because
the most recent stock assessments indicate that fishing
is a bigger factor than previously thought (ASMFC 2010)
and there is no management mechanism to reduce
fishing mortality to appropriate levels.
In recent years,
many stakeholders believed that management entities
have insufficient appreciation of ecosystem services
provided by menhaden. The newly proposed regulations
still do not include specific measures for the Chesapeake
Bay beyond maintaining the current cap on reduction
fishery landings. Making menhaden assessment and
management more spatially explicit, and gaining a
greater understanding of menhaden's role as prey,
would help address localized depletion concerns in the
bay and ensure that menhaden's ecosystem services are
not compromised.
 

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I see a lot of facts and figures here, and thank you for sharing the info. I am one of those that would have to read this several times to catch on.
I believe our help here in Va will only come from the ASMFC --being a reaction to public pressure. Big Day? Did something happen we can be happy about?
 

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The Chesapeake Bay should not be considered part of the coastal stock or and should not account for a large portion of Omega's catch.

Kevin
Weekend Mistress
 

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The Chesapeake Bay should not be considered part of the coastal stock or and should not account for a large portion of Omega's catch.

Kevin
Weekend Mistress
Omega doesn't care, our politicians don't care, or Governor doesn't care, so where can we go from here ?

I sent Wavy TV 10 copies of these latest posts.... Who knows..... There must be a compromise somewhere out there.......
 

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Dave Sikorski did a great job with his article.

Here is my condensed interpretation on where we stand.

- Menhaden management at the coast-wide level (ME to FL through ASMFC) currently ignores ecosystem value of the species (filtering & forage) as well as the impacts of localized depletion in VA waters.

- ASMFC is looking to modernize menhaden management to include ecosystem value of the species. ASMFC meets this week (hence the "big day") to decide if they will incorporate the best available science (Lenfest Approach) or if they will delay incorporation of any ecosystem value until more studies have been done. We want ecosystem value incorporated as soon as possible, so Lenfest should be used until menhaden specific models are available. If ASMFC does not approve use of Lenfest, we may be looking at a decade before any ecosystem based management is implemented (bad news!)

- ASMFC may make small adjustments is allocation between states (maybe move some away from VA) but they still have no plans to address the localized depletion issue that we suffer from in VA. The localized depletion issue will likely have to be handled at the state level (good luck getting VA politicians to do that!)
 

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Thanks Chris, Is there a way to send and email to ASMFC asking for them to include the Lenfest approch while other studies are being done?
And since the Chesapeake bay is the nursery for 65% of the entire East coast stock that they work to address the localized depletion there. Mistakes made in protecting menhaden in the Chesapeake bay will affect a large percentage of the overall stock.

Seems we have to get after EPA to address the damage Omega does by Dumping the slurry mixture/excess fish ( fertilizer) into the bay , while at same time removing the fish that filters the bay.

I too have little hope in Va politicians acting responsively on this issue.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
CCA VA-From the ASMFC meeting on November 3rd, the Menhaden Management Board approved a motion to proceed with a Public Information Document to consider a full range of allocation options and ecological reference points, including the Lenfest approach, for implementation as an amendment in 2018. This delay of one year allows for completion of a socio-economic analysis that will assist allocation decisions and will not be completed until 2017.

While the inclusion of the Lenfest approach is what we wanted, the two-year delay is not a welcome development and a great deal depends on who/what is charged with doing the socio-economic analysis. Like all things menhaden, we will have to pay extremely close attention to this process as it lurches forward.
 

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"If I am fortunate enough to return, I will personally submit legislation to curtail the total catch allowed by Omega proteins and also direct VMRC to designate zones where fish are allowed to be caught with specific exclusion for the mouth and northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay." Re-elected Senator Frank Wagner


I am very encourage by his commitment. Need to apply and keep the pressure on the General Assembly.
 

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"If I am fortunate enough to return, I will personally submit legislation to curtail the total catch allowed by Omega proteins and also direct VMRC to designate zones where fish are allowed to be caught with specific exclusion for the mouth and northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay." Re-elected Senator Frank Wagner


I am very encourage by his commitment. Need to apply and keep the pressure on the General Assembly.
If Frank Wagner had ANY knowledge of what is going on in the bay fishery for menhaden, he would know that menhaden are managed by the General Assemble of which he is a part of, not managed by VMRC. His was just a political statement with nothing to back it up.
 
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