Saving Striped Bass by Managing Menhaden
Striped bass is one of the nation’s most popular sportfish and is banned from commercial harvest in federal waters. Unfortunately, this fish is under siege from a declining menhaden population, a key food source for many popular sportfish - especially striped bass. As a result of substantial commercial fishing pressure, menhaden is currently experiencing large population declines and is at its lowest point in recorded history. This may ultimately result in the collapse of some of the East Coast's most prized recreational fisheries, including striped bass.
Menhaden play a key role in the coastal marine food chain. They filter algae from the water and serve as a primary food source for many sportfish. Menhaden is the second most commercially harvested species in the United States. It is factory processed for its oil and is turned into animal feed and other commercial products. Much of the debate over menhaden focuses on its commercial harvest in Chesapeake Bay, which is where half the entire coastal harvest of menhaden occurs. Over the past three decades, menhaden abundance has declined continuously from an estimated 186 billion fish to 18 billion.
The declining status of menhaden has taken on more significance with the increasing prevalence of Mycobacteriosis infections among striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay. There is growing evidence that a lack of suitable forage, notably menhaden, has stressed these important sportfish and made them particularly vulnerable to this fatal disease. The first reports of Mycobacterium-infected striped bass in the Chesapeake date back to 1984 and today over 70 percent of bass display lesions related to the disease.
In August 2011, the ASMFC voted overwhelmingly to move forward with a draft Menhaden Fishery Management Plan Addendum that included a range of management options to more conservatively manage the commercial harvest of menhaden. The draft addendum presented five different management measure options, ranging from status quo to overall harvest reductions by as much as 45 percent from 2010 levels.
The key menhaden stock measurement involves a calculation of "maximum spawning potential" (MSP), which is a measure of the spawning potential of the existing stock compared to that of an unfished stock. The spawning potential of the current coastal population is only 8 percent MSP. The American Sportfishing Association (ASA) recommended that the ASMFC adopt a conservation target of 40 percent of the menhaden MSP, which is in line with national standards for other forage species. Click here to read ASA’s comments.
After receiving tens of thousands of comments, during its November 2011 meeting, the ASMFC voted by an overwhelming margin to approve a new fishing target level for menhaden of 30 percent MSP in an effort to increase its abundance and its availability as a forage species. While the target selected by the commission was slightly lower than the level that the sportfishing community recommended, this still represents a major step in managing menhaden for their role in the food chain, as opposed to simply as a reduction fishery.
This was a significant victory for the Atlantic sportfishing community and KeepAmericaFishing™ thanks all its supporters who voiced their concerns about Atlantic menhaden management. It is just the first step in a long journey to rebuild the menhaden population and the help of angler advocates will continue to be needed along the way.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has regulatory oversight of the menhaden harvest. The current benchmarks used by the commission show that the stock is undergoing overfishing.
In August 2012 the ASMFC debated selected management options to be included in Draft Amendment 2 to the Menhaden Fisheries Management Plan. Release of the document for public comment is slated for early September, and will be followed by an extensive public comment period and hearings. Among the series of options approved for public comment are a range of harvest reduction options from 0-50 percent for 2013 in order to meet fishing target levels previous selected by the ASMFC.
In December 2012, the ASMFC approved the Interstate Fishery Management Plan’s Amendment 2 for Atlantic Menhaden, which will reduce menhaden harvest in both the reduction and bait fisheries by 20 percent beginning in 2013. Menhaden, a key forage species for striped bass, bluefish, Atlantic tuna and other important saltwater species, have declined to their lowest recorded levels. The 20 percent reduction in harvest is an interim measure that will be in place until the results of the next benchmark stock assessment are known in 2014.
Please continue to keep an eye out for important action alerts from KeepAmericaFishing about menhaden rebuilding and other issues that impact recreational fishing.