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Exploitation Of Atlantic Menhaden Threatens Restoration Of Chesapeake Bay

written by James Price / Published in Bay Journal October 2001

The Chesapeake Bay Program has spent millions to help clean-up the Chesapeake Bay, and is the largest estuary restoration project ever undertaken by the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency plays a major role in directing this effort, which includes restoring the Bay’s living resources. Ironically, another federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is providing financial assistance through a loan program totaling $20.6 million to Omega Protein Corp., who operates a fish processing plant located in Reedville VA, that annually harvests approximately 250 million pounds of Atlantic menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay. Omega Protein is the largest commercial fishing operation on the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic coast. Atlantic menhaden are a vital link in the food chain, and have the ability to filter a volume of water equal to the entire Chesapeake Bay in less than one day, with the potential to annually consume up to 25% of the Bay’s nitrogen. However, since there is no quota to limit or control the harvest, this intensive fishery for Atlantic menhaden seasonally depletes the Bay’s most valuable living resource.

The loan program, mandated by Congress and authorized by Title XI of the Marine Act of 1936, is administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), an integral part of NOAA, and has assisted Omega Protein in securing loans through lenders with low interest rates enhanced with a government guaranty to the lender for up to 80% of the financing. Omega Protein’s current Title XI borrowings are secured by liens on 17 fishing vessels and mortgages on their Reedville VA and Abbeville LA plants. In 1996, Title XI borrowing was modified to permit loans obtained through this program for shoreside construction. Omega Protein used the entire $20.6 million, originally authorized under the program, allocating approximately $14 million to refurbish 18 vessels. The remaining $6.5 million was used to modernize their plants with the majority of the money, $4.5 million going to the Reedville VA plant. Loans are now available under similar terms pursuant to the Title XI program without intervening lenders. Omega Protein has applied for an additional loan of $1.9 million under this new program to refurbish more of their vessels.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), comprised of 15 coastal states from Maine to Florida, is responsible for the management of Atlantic menhaden through the Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan. The NMFS does not have an Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan and they do not require the reduction fishing industry to be licensed in federal waters, therefore, Omega Protein has total unregulated access offshore to one of the country’s most valuable marine resources. Purse seine fishing for menhaden takes place along the Atlantic coast and in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Approximately 84% of the menhaden purse seine landings along the Atlantic coast are harvested by the reduction industry using spotter planes and vessels up to 200-feet long. The remainder, caught by independently owned smaller boats, are usually sold for bait. The larger vessels owned by Omega Protein harvest and process approximately 90% of the Atlantic menhaden caught by the reduction fishery on the East Coast of the United States. The reduction industry processes menhaden into fishmeal, fish oil, and fish solubles; fishmeal is an important ingredient in poultry and livestock feeds because of its high protein content. The oil is refined and has been used extensively in cooking oils and margarine throughout Europe.

Atlantic menhaden are the most important filter feeder and one of the most abundant species of finfish in the Chesapeake Bay, with the filtering capacity to consume approximately 10 times more phytoplankton than the Eastern oyster. Adult menhaden feed on phytoplankton (algae), zooplankton, and suspended organic plant detritus. They consume and redistribute a significant amount of energy within and between the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean. Menhaden are the dominant prey species for many predatory fish and mammals such as striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, Spanish mackerel, seals, and whales; because of their schooling behavior, they also are a favorite target for the common loon, herons, egrets, ospreys, and eagles.

The Chesapeake Bay is an important nursery area for Atlantic menhaden, and accounts for approximately 45% of the Atlantic menhaden recruitment along the East Coast of the United States. Omega Protein targets immature Age-1 and Age-2 Atlantic menhaden, accounting for approximately 80% of the purse seine landings by the reduction fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. Since 1970 the average annual landings of Atlantic menhaden have tripled in the Chesapeake Bay to approximately 300 million pounds or 44% of the total coastal menhaden reduction fishery harvest. Menhaden are captured in pound nets in Maryland’s portion of the Bay and landings have annually averaged approximately 3 million pounds since 1975 which is only 1% of the reduction fishery landings in the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, Maryland’s annual total commercial seafood harvest for the past 15 years has only averaged 57 million pounds or approximately 19% by weight of the reduction fisheries average annual landings of Atlantic menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland has prohibited purse seining in state waters (0-3 miles from the coast) and in the Chesapeake Bay since before the 1950’s.

There is growing concern that the massive removal of Atlantic menhaden by the reduction fishery from the Chesapeake Bay during the past 30 years has been harmful and has limited the Bay’s production and affected the health of its top predators (e.g. striped bass). Since the menhaden population has declined, trends in water quality and living resources have raised concern about the Bay’s future. The Chesapeake Bay Program monitoring data since 1985 indicate: (1). Populations of mesozooplankton, the food base for many fish species, have declined in mid-Bay and lower-Bay waters. (2). Food (phytoplankton and zooplankton) generated in the highly productive open water habitats of the Chesapeake Bay has been increasingly shunted towards ctenophores (comb jellyfish) and bacteria and away from fish. (3). Comb jellyfish, a predator of zooplankton, fish eggs, and larvae, are increasing in mid-Bay waters. (4). Bay mainstem trends: Water clarity has been decreasing; while levels in nutrients have not changed significantly.

Atlantic menhaden have suffered from poor recruitment in the Chesapeake Bay since 1992. Poor reproductive success is at least partially responsible for the declining menhaden population, but the species also suffers from poor fisheries management, (e.g.: over-fishing in the Chesapeake Bay), disease, and mass mortalities due to low dissolved oxygen episodes associated with harmful algae blooms in the Bay and other mid-Atlantic estuaries. The total estimated Atlantic menhaden reduction fishery landings for the Atlantic coast in 2000 were 368 million pounds which are the second lowest since the NMFS began keeping records in 1940. The NMFS currently estimates that the number of Atlantic menhaden Ages-1 to 8 is less than 2-billion fish, the lowest population on record.

Recently, the ASMFC amended their Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan; however, they did not address one of the plan’s main ecological objectives which was allocation of the stock. The ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Fisheries Management Plan allowed the reduction fishery to exploit the menhaden population until individual states along the Atlantic coast effectively banned or imposed restrictions within their borders. This forced the reduction fishery to concentrate their efforts entirely in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay and nearby coastal waters. This is an example of a fishery management plan doomed to failure, causing a potential ecological disaster by allowing the reduction fishery to harvest massive numbers of immature Atlantic menhaden with no harvest limits in the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic menhaden’s most important nursery grounds. The ASMFC has mismanaged one of the nation’s most important natural resources to the point where uncoordinated decisions by individual states have virtually altered the ability of the Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan to adequately regulate the fishery.

The ASMFC’S Atlantic Menhaden Management Board has failed to address written requests from the public in accordance with their own Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter to consider reducing the Atlantic menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay and to protect Age-0 Atlantic menhaden from being exploited along the Atlantic coast. The ASMFC should be required to coordinate their Fishery Management Plans with the Chesapeake Bay Program before developing new Fishery Management Plans that could have a negative impact on the ecology of the nation’s largest estuary. How is the Chesapeake Bay Program supposed to succeed in restoring the Bay’s living resources, if NOAA continues to offer financial assistance to Omega Protein and the ASMFC continues to employ a Fishery Management Plan that allows Omega Protein to harvest unlimited numbers of Atlantic menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay?