Atlantic menhaden management takes a familiar, disturbing turn
By Ted Venker
Coastal Conservation Association
Last week the Atlantic States Marines Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Stock Assessment Committee and Technical Committee met to finalize the stock assessment update and advice they may give the Board for managing menhaden.
To reset the situation, according to the last benchmark assessment four years ago, the stock was undergoing overfishing, recruitment was at or near an all-time low, and abundance was at an all-time low. Not a good situation for a species whose primary ecological attribute is its historic, teeming abundance which has made it one of the primary forage species for gamefish like striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, bluefin, king mackerel and many others.
Menhaden has been allowed to decline to this low level using the reference points endorsed by the Technical Committee and the management advice based on those reference points by the Technical Committee. Simply put, the advice of the Stock Assessment Committee and the Technical Committee has failed the Board and the fishery.
At the last benchmark assessment, independent scientists reviewed the stock assessment and noted what the public has been saying for years: the stock is in a state of decline. Yet the management guideposts (reference points) did not signal any problems. The independent scientists suggested the Management Board adopt new reference points that took into account the historic abundance of menhaden.
So it was not surprising that the Board took the advice of the last peer review and adopted new, more conservative reference points. They adopted a 15 percent Maximum Spawning Potential (MSP) – which is a spawning stock that is 15 percent of an unfished stock – as the threshold and 30 percent MSP as the target, all perfectly reasonable, commonly used reference points. At the time it would have taken an estimated 10-15 percent reduction in harvest to meet the threshold of 15 percent MSP, and about twice that to meet the target reference point mortality rate.
The Board asked for a stock assessment update (which would add three more years of data to the last benchmark assessment to see where we are today), and that’s where the current problems start. The model started acting up when the last three years of data were added. The Stock Assessment Committee finally came to the conclusion that the results were so questionable that it was not useable for offering management advice. The two Stock Assessment Committee members who argued the hardest for not offering any management advice until the stock assessment was fixed were both employees of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Not to be forgotten in this new intrigue are the facts that this is a stock for which managers have a 55-plus-year time series of data, it is at a low level of abundance, there is evident age truncation, and the fishing mortality rate has been increasing in recent years.
And the Technical Committee can’t offer management advice? Really?
NMFS has been offering management advice for years on stocks without nearly the data stream we have for menhaden; indeed NMFS hasn’t hesitated to close entire fisheries on a fraction of the evidence we have for menhaden. One only has to look at species like snowy and warsaw grouper to see instances where NMFS has not hesitated to offer management advice on the skimpiest of data. Yet, in this case, with the obvious low level of abundance and 55 years worth of data, you can’t offer any advice for what to do with menhaden? That is just stunning.
It was just a couple of months ago that the single company that is responsible for the most intense harvest of menhaden hired two stock assessment scientists that quite inappropriately nearly led the discussion at the last Stock Assessment Committee meeting, participated freely in all the discussions, and even had its lawyer in the room at the last meeting. That same company has worked hand-in-glove with NMFS for 30 years. And now the primary vocal proponents insisting that the Technical Committee could not offer any management advice for menhaden were the two NMFS employees.
At the very least this does not pass the smell test. The public has a right to expect better. At some point, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck and swims like a duck, it must be a duck.