Menhaden Managers Should Think Like Firefighters

Environmental Commentary by Beau Beasley

Recently, I arrived on the scene of a significant house fire. My first job was to ensure the safety of both the homeowner and the crews battling the fire. Ultimately, my goal was to extinguish the blaze and to prevent its spread to neighboring houses. The fire was well-involved, with flames shooting out of the second-floor living room windows, an adjacent bedroom window, and the front door. Initially I felt overwhelmed by the situation, but standing idly by was simply not an option.

This fire, still vivid in my mind, reminds me of the state of the Chesapeake Bay’s declining menhaden population and its management.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a consortium of 15 states from Maine to Florida, manages the fisheries for part of the Chesapeake Bay and for the waters 3–200 miles off the East Coast — no easy task. Recreational anglers and conservationists accuse ASMFC commissioners of sitting on their hands rather than actively managing the region’s precious menhaden population.

At this point, readers may wonder what’s special about the lowly menhaden. After all, you won’t find this oily, bony species at your local fish market. But menhaden are the favorite food of just about every species you’ll see there: Stripers, tuna, blues, flounder, redfish, weakfish, cobia, Spanish mackerel and crabs feed on menhaden; as do pelicans, seagulls, cormorants and loons. Consequently, menhaden are a bellwether species: The health of the menhaden gives us some indication of the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Fish and birds are major menhaden predators — but they aren’t the only ones. North America’s largest commercial harvester of menhaden is Texas-based Omega Protein, which bases its East Coast fleet at its plant in Reedville, Va. These ships harvest about 240 million pounds of menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay each season. The fish are processed into a host of products including lipstick, heart-healthy supplements, lubricants, and, ironically, commercial fish food. Smaller operators gather menhaden to sell as bait for lobster traps and tackle shops all along the Eastern seaboard. In 2009, bait boats harvested 30 million pounds of menhaden in New Jersey alone. Bait boats account for about 20 percent of all menhaden harvested each season and many states, like New Jersey, have no limits on the amount of bait that can be harvested.

Because Omega Protein harvests a large number of menhaden each year, the company has become a lightning rod for criticism: Anglers and conservationists deride Omega Protein mercilessly on online forums. Nevertheless, clear evidence that the East Coast’s plummeting menhaden population is solely a result of commercial harvesting simply doesn’t exist; how well young fish survive to join the population and pollution are also involved.

Like any other successful company, Omega Protein does what it does to turn a profit. What it does includes making generous donations to Virginia legislators, who manage menhaden personally — yes, just the one species — rather than allowing wildlife managers to do so. As one might expect, substantive menhaden management is virtually nonexistent in Virginia. Legislators in the Old Dominion argue that they passed a harvest cap in 2005. Most critics dismiss this measure though, pointing out that the cap was nothing more than the average of the menhaden harvest for the previous five years.

So blaming Omega Protein or any other commercial harvester for the declining menhaden population is pointless; they are simply doing business under the law. If overharvesting is too blame, then the Virginia legislature and the ASMFC are more culpable, as both have allowed the status quo to continue unchallenged for a long time.

The ASMFC’s latest stock assessment determined that menhaden stocks are at a historic low. Conservationists and recreational anglers fear that if menhaden stocks aren’t bolstered soon, the population could collapse, causing a domino effect on other species. ASMFC officials are encouraging the public to help them determine just how many menhaden should be left in the Bay. The ASMFC is considering raising the maximum spawning potential range from current levels of 8 percent to as high as 40 percent. But remember that the greater the percentage of menhaden left for reproduction and natural predation, the greater the percentage that must be trimmed from harvest levels. To weigh in on these issues, concerned citizens can go to and contact their state representatives.

Firefighters are trained to react quickly to a host of different emergencies. Faced with a home engulfed in flames, a sick child or a car wreck, they assess the situation and take action. The members of the ASMFC must act in a similar manner. They must make an informed decision, for the benefit of the resource. Deciding how much to increase the Bay’s menhaden population won’t be easy, but sitting by while the menhaden stock burns away is simply not an option.

Beau Beasley is a 27-year veteran of the fire service where he currently serves as a captain. He resides with his wife and children in Warrenton, Va. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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