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A Big Change in How a Small Fish Is Protected Could Help Save Whales

The menhaden is a tiny fish key to the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem that has supported a thriving fishery since the 19th century. Now regulators are considering a novel approach to ensure there’s enough fish to feed the fishery and other marine animals.

Written by Jessica Leber Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A humpback whale feeds on menhaden near New York City.Artie Raslich/Getty Images

When the first menhaden processing plant opened in Reedville, Virginia, in 1878, the bony, oily fish swam in thick schools up and down the Atlantic seaboard of the United States. The factory was just one of many menhaden operations that dotted the coast, turning a small fish that people don’t like to eat into nutritious fish oil, animal feed, fertilizers and other useful products.

At the fishery’s peak in the 1950s, there were 20 menhaden plants taking more than 1 billion lb (450 million kg) annually from Maine to Florida. These days, Reedville is still a menhaden town, but it’s now home to the only U.S. facility left along the coast, and it efficiently sweeps up the large majority of the roughly 400 million lb (180 million kg) of menhaden still fished each year from the Atlantic Ocean.

For a fish that humans don’t eat and that is not currently considered overfished, menhaden have recently attracted significant attention. That’s because much in the marine ecosystem rides on the little fish, which are one of the Atlantic’s important forage species – prey for whales and other predators. Thanks to fishing quotas set by the first coastwide menhaden management plan in 2012, many states have seen large schools return to areas they’d largely left long ago, according to conservationists.

Humpback whales are now being spotted in significant numbers in New York Harbor for the first time in a century, Rhode Island striped bass anglers are enjoying flush times and New Jersey’s bait companies that sell menhaden to other fishers are seeing more in their nets, too. “It’s a wonderful upward spiral,” said Paul Sieswerda, president of Gotham Whale, the first organization to take tourists on whale watching trips as the giant marine mammals began to repopulate the ocean around New York.

“The menhaden not only provide food for whales, but they also tend to clean the waters,” he added, noting that the fish, like oysters, are filter feeders that remove excess nutrients from the ocean as they graze on algae.

Whether that ocean success story continues may depend on what happens this week when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission convenes a two-day meeting on November 13 in Baltimore to determine the future of the Atlantic menhaden fishery. A regional authority consisting mostly of representatives from 15 Atlantic states, the commission could set in motion new limits on menhaden fishing that go beyond the usual goals of ensuring stable species populations or preventing declines. Instead, regulators could impose quotas on menhaden catch to ensure there’s enough fish to feed other marine animals that eat them.

Omega Protein operations off the coast of Virginia in 2015. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The meeting will pit conservationists and recreational anglers who want to see that happen as quickly as possible against the commercial fishing industry, and in particular one company – Omega Protein. The Houston-based corporation owns the Reedville facility and catches about 85 percent of commercial menhaden in the Atlantic every year. Omega Protein wants to maintain the status quo until the science of what’s called “ecosystem-based” menhaden management catches up.

The change to such an approach would be a major shift in mindset. Overfishing of this forage species, in other words, could be defined in a far more holistic way than before, an idea that has only been accepted recently in a few fisheries around the world. Due both to the menhaden’s crucial role in the Atlantic and the precedent the ecosystem-based approach could set for other forage species like herring, the shift may have “huge and broadly sweeping consequences” for the ocean’s ecological health, according to Joseph Gordon, a U.S. oceans expert at Pew Charitable Trusts.

Ensuring there are enough menhaden to support the marine food chain could become especially important as climate change raises ocean temperatures. Warmer waters hold less of the oxygen fish need to thrive. This may be why scientists have found many kinds of fish have been shrinking in body size in recent decades, including menhaden, according to a recent analysis from Louisiana State University. Over the last 65 years, Gulf and Atlantic menhaden have shrunk 15 percent, researcher R. Eugene Turner found. It’s a trend, he said, that has not yet been incorporated into fisheries models and is likely to continue.

If the weather is great this week, Omega’s Reedville employees are likely to be out on ships and in spotter planes, netting menhaden and earning money that the company can’t afford to lose. (Last week, it reported that its most recent quarterly revenues fell 17 percent.)

If it’s not good fishing weather, however, some of its employees will be bused to Baltimore, where, according to company spokesperson Ben Landry, they will be ready to defend their livelihoods at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission menhaden meeting. If Omega’s Atlantic quotas drop significantly next year, the company might take one of their seven Reedville fishing boats out of commission, he said, and some jobs would go with it.

Omega Protein fishers pulling in menhaden. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Omega Protein is a public company that earned $390 million in revenue in 2016. Although only some of that comes from its Atlantic operations, its owners also have a lot at stake, and they hold unusual influence over the representatives of Virginia who will vote at the commission meeting.

Based on Reedville’s past fishing volumes, Virginia has generally been allocated 85 percent of the overall annual Atlantic menhaden quota in federal waters, almost all of which is used by Omega Protein because it is the only large commercial operation.Virginia is also the only Atlantic state that has not banned commercial menhaden fishing in state waters, where juveniles feed and grow in the Chesapeake Bay before swimming further offshore as adults. Unlike for other commercial fisheries in Virginia, menhaden policies are still set by the state legislature rather than by professional fish and wildlife managers, according to Chris Moore, a regional ecosystem scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Omega Protein says it is actually supportive of eventually moving to an ecosystem management approach. What is controversial, and has attracted more than 120,000 public comments preceding this week’s meeting, is that there’s not yet agreed-upon scientific models for how to manage Atlantic menhaden in that way. It will take several years, at least, to develop the ecosystem management protocols.

How quickly to push toward this goal – and how to divide up the menhaden quota in the interim – are the major points up for debate. Conservationists and many fishers along the East Coast want to boost the broader food chain by moving to this new paradigm right away, relying on more generalized “rules of thumb” that are not specific to menhaden. Meanwhile, many state-based interests are saying it is also unfair that one company in Virginia is allowed to take so much of whatever ends up being the overall pie, especially now that menhaden populations seem to be healthier across the Eastern seaboard.

Omega Protein, according to Landry, is seeking an option that is “for a lack of a better word, the status quo” for the near future. Actually, it hopes it can increase how much it is allowed to fish overall, closer to its higher pre-2012 levels before the coastwide management plans cut quotas by 20 percent, he said.

“Two consecutive stock assessments have indicated a healthy population that isn’t overfished,” said Landry. “At minimum, Omega Protein wants to get back to where were at that point [before 2012].”

It could face stronger headwinds on that front given recent developments at the company. In October, Omega Protein announced that its board had approved a nearly $500 million acquisition offer from Cooke Seafoods, a privately owned Canadian aquaculture and fishing conglomerate that previously bought Omega menhaden catch as feed for its fish farms. The deal is not yet finalized, but already critics from the Coastal Conservation Association have argued that its future ownership by a foreign company “to raise fish they sell back to the U.S. citizens” is a reason to allocate to other states a higher share of menhaden allowances.

The debate quickly becomes highly specific and technical, but conservationists argue there are larger issues at stake and that ecologically based management could be done reasonably in concert with a sustainable fishery.

“[Omega Protein] is a commercial operation that supports some population of fishermen. Their interest is to earn a living from the ocean,” said Sieswerda. “The history of commercial fisheries is not so good, in that they have pretty much harvested themselves out of business for a lot of species. The idea of managing them as a whole really makes some sense.”

The company, and likely buyer Cooke Seafood, also have a business interest in sustainability. Increasingly, fish farms want to certify their products – and supply chains – to be environmentally friendly. That’s why Landry said Omega Protein applied earlier this year for a Marine Stewardship Council label for its menhaden, which would be fed to Cooke’s farmed salmon. No consumer is ever going to see a MSC menhaden label at Whole Foods, but the high-end grocery chain may require such certification for the sustainably farmed salmon it sells. Omega Protein’s application for certification is pending.

“We were seeing very positive stock assessments in both the Atlantic and the Gulf, so we went for it,” Landry said.

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