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How to Save the Atlantic Fishery

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How to Protect the Atlantic Fishery

By JOHN G. GANSNOV. 13, 2017

Earlier this year, a couple of New Jersey anglers were fishing the waters near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge when a humpback whale nearly landed in their 19-foot boat. Their video of the encounter was watched hundreds of thousands of times and made national news, but most people likely missed one detail — the small fish that landed in the boat along with the whale.

Fishermen like myself, however, recognized it right away as an Atlantic menhaden. Anglers learn to look for that small fish, because we know that where we find menhaden, we’ll also find whales, striped bass and a wealth of other marine life. During my last striped bass fishing trip off the Rockaways, I was lucky enough to catch my fill of big stripers and see feeding by porpoises, osprey and humpbacks. It was a National Geographic experience just a few miles from Manhattan.

An important reason for bountiful catches like mine, many scientists believe, is the recovery of the menhaden, which began in 2013 after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the government body that manages the species and others, enacted the first-ever catch limits for the fish, which is rendered into heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid fish oil and used to produce fertilizers and high-protein animal feeds. This reduced the menhaden harvest by 20 percent. Menhaden have responded by returning in large numbers to New York, attracting the whales, striped bass, osprey and other species that feed on them.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing what appears to be more abundant menhaden in our waters, and with that, we have increasing habitat of some of the large whales in some our waters,” Howard Rosenbaum, the director of the ocean giants program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, recently told the public radio show Science Friday. His organization has been studying whales in the New York Bight, the section of the Atlantic Ocean that stretches between Montauk Point on Long Island and Cape May, N.J.

Unfortunately, this progress is at risk.

At a meeting scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, the fisheries commission is considering several options for managing menhaden along the Eastern Seaboard, including one that would allow up to a 40 percent increase in the catch limit. An increase that large would ignore the important role these fish play in ocean ecosystems.

This is why many recreational fishermen, scientists, conservationists, whale and bird watchers and even chefs and scuba divers support a policy that would consider managing menhaden in the context of the species’ role as an important prey fish for predators. Doing so would set an important precedent for managing other so-called forage fish and would be a welcome departure from the present approach of narrowly focusing on how many fish of a particular species can be sustainably harvested.

Opposition to a more ecological approach comes principally from Omega Protein Inc., the largest industrial harvester of menhaden on the East Coast. The company catches hundreds of millions of menhaden every year. Omega Protein and the state of Virginia, where the company runs its Atlantic fishing operations, want aggressive catch increases that would jeopardize the recent success in managing menhaden populations.

Omega contended in a recent letter to the commission that menhaden actually are in high abundance and underfished, and that “the current already conservative management approach to menhaden is more than adequately taking ecosystem considerations into account by default, if not design.”

Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, The Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.

But a group of 118 scientists, in their own recent letter to the commission, argued that continuing the present management approach “is simply not acceptable,” would “contradict the scientific consensus on how to manage forage species” and could result in “substantial increases over current catch levels while ignoring likely negative impacts on predators.”

Allowing an increase in the allowable catch that Omega is seeking, while waiting possibly years for the commission to develop and implement a scientific management model, would not only be an ecological disaster, but it would also be an economic mistake. Recreational saltwater angling in the Atlantic generates some $10.5 billion in economic activity annually. More abundant menhaden means more fishing, and more fishing is good for the economy, including the nascent whale watching business in New York City.

At its meeting this week, the commission should take the responsible approach and manage menhaden using the best available science to both sustain fishing and the many predators that depend on them. Doing so would mark a turning point for Atlantic coast communities and our oceans.

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Op-ed pieces like this are hopefully reaching some of the Commisosners at ASMFC.  Let’s hope they do  the right thing and vote in favor of conservation and habitat

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