A Tiny Fish That Fuels a Healthy Atlantic Ecosystem Now Stirs Industry Debates

Researchers surveyed 84 nests of fish-eating birds in Mobjack Bay, a cove at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, in mid-June, hoping to find evidence of a healthy new generation of ospreys. They found only three young men.

Scientists at the College of William and Mary said this was the lowest breeding rate in more than 50 years of observing local populations of raptors. And this, they said, is the latest evidence that reproductive success is declining over the long term as the birds’ favorite food, Atlantic menhaden, is depleted across the bay.

Hundreds of millions of tiny silvery fish play an important role in the coastal water ecosystem along the eastern coast, feeding larger fish such as striped bass and weakened fish. Marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. There are also birds such as bald eagles, great blue herons and brown pelicans. Fish is highly nutritious and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. They consume small organisms like plankton and filter large amounts of seawater.

However, they are also the mainstay of commercial fisheries, being harvested in large numbers for processing into crab and lobster feed, and for so-called reduction fishing, where they are ground and processed into products such as fish oil. . and fishmeal.

The Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal regulator, this year increased the amount of menhaden allowed to be caught across the Atlantic over the next two years to 233,550 tonnes, about 20% more than the previous two years. The commission said the new quotas would provide additional fishing opportunities while minimizing the risk of damage to the fish ecosystem.

Last August, the agency concluded that there was no evidence that Menhaden was being “overfished” throughout its range. The ‘ecological reference points’ are networks of fish predators and prey that have guided the Commission’s Menhaden policy since 2020. Single-species management practices.

While the Commission raised catches for the entire Menhaden coast, the quota for the Chesapeake Bay reduction fishery remained unchanged at 51,000 tonnes, or about 244 million fish, based on an average of 0.46 pounds per fish. The agency has authorized the catch of about 1.2 billion fish across the Atlantic coast.

Critics of the commission say the removal of such large numbers of fish from the bay is degrading the ecosystem in which Menhaden plays a central role, making it difficult for species such as ospreys and striped bass to survive and thrive. claims.

In a 2021 letter to Maryland officials, Noah Bresman, professor of fish biology at the University of Salisbury in Maryland, wrote, “The Virginia-based Menhaden Fishery is committed to producing Atlantic Menhaden fish in and around the Chesapeake Bay. resources are being overexploited,” he wrote. The decline of menhaden from the Gulf has contributed to the extinction of many menhaden-dependent species. “

“There are many factors behind the decline of other species,” said commission spokeswoman Tina Berger. For example, high levels of predation and disease in recent years have also affected vulnerable fish populations, she said.

In May, a group of recreational fishermen in Maryland said that “rubber stamping” the latest quota set by the Atlantic Commission contributed to Menhaden declines in and around the Chesapeake Bay, state agency Virginia Marine Resources said. sued the commission.

The Southern Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization said the Virginia Department of State’s decision is contributing to the decline of menhaden and other fish species that depend on them, harming the recreational fishing industry. The organization said it contributes $1.3 billion annually to the Virginia economy. .

The maximum yields set by the Commission for Virginia and the Atlantic Coast are defined as “a Virginia commissioner analyzing appropriate maximum yields and adequate conservation in the Virginia portion of the bay based on state-specific considerations as established by law. It does not relieve the Society of its obligations.” The complaint was filed May 10 in the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond.

A spokesman for the plaintiffs, Phil Zalesak, said the group is seeking a public hearing on the matter in September.

The lawsuit accused state officials of issuing the regulations outside the October-December period mandated by state law and failing to conduct an independent analysis of conditions in state waters when adopting the commission’s new quotas. . It asked the court to overrule the state agency’s regulation and seek new rules to protect Virginia’s waters, including the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

State officials declined to comment.

Omega Protein, a Leadville, Virginia-based company that harvests menhaden for processing into fish oil and other products, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but backed the commission’s contention that menhaden is not overfished. bottom. Company spokesman Ben Landry said the commission’s current limit on menhaden catches from the Chesapeake Bay is one of the lowest in the 150-year history of the bay’s fishing industry, and the fish is expected to catch menhaden. He said there was no scientific basis for the claim to capture. locally depleted.

Landry cited zebra bass as an example of a fish in “severe decline” in Atlantic waters for reasons other than food sources, and blamed the problem on “excessive” recreational fishing that should be curbed by emergency regulations.

“It’s clear that the highly preventive Chesapeake Bay Menhaden Regulation is not a hurdle to getting the timber bass population back to higher levels,” he said.

and Website statementThe company said the increase in Menhaden’s total allowable catch was “fully consistent” with the ecological reference points on which the commission’s new fish management will be based.

Since 2015, along the coast, the population of striped bass has surged. But after recreational bass catches nearly doubled last year compared to 2021, the Atlantic Commission will limit the maximum size of fish caught by recreational anglers to 31 inches in May. measures were taken to rebuild the population.

Paul Eidman, founder of the Menhaden Defenders, a nonprofit that advocates for rebuilding menhaden stocks along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, said Omega would use large ships and observation planes to hunt menhaden in large numbers in the Chesapeake Bay. It was accused of using industrial technology such as It is not sustainable and contributes to the decline of other species.

“It’s about the impact these giant 195-foot ships have,” Eidman said in an interview. “They catch millions of fish at a time and basically demine parts of the bay. No. It’s that they’re dying out too quickly for nature to replenish them.”

Aidman, who also operates fishing charters in Monmouth County, New Jersey, said the Chesapeake Bay is an important source of game fish such as striped bass throughout the Atlantic coast. He urged Omega to fish outside the Gulf to help restore stocks of menhaden and other fish from years of overfishing.

“Our argument is stay out of the water, leave the estuary alone, and be a good steward,” he said. “Omega is always talking about being part of the community and always giving back. I will leave it to.”

Outside the Chesapeake Bay, menhaden numbers have increased since the Atlantic Commission determined in 2012 that they were being hunted at rates beyond their reproductive capacity if left uncorrected. In response, the agency temporarily cut allowable catches by 20% across the coast, and fish populations he recovered within two years.

Eidman said recent evidence of whale abundance has been seen off the coast of New York and New Jersey, where predators such as humpback whales, tuna, sharks and bald eagles are back again.

According to Michael Academia, an osprey researcher at the Center for Conservation Biology at William and College, the latest percentage of ospreys kept per nest in Mobjack Bay was just 0.03, which is more than the population needs to sustain. It is well below the ratio of 1.15. Mary of Williamsburg, Virginia.

The lowest number of osprey chicks in the region on record follows a successive decline in breeding rates from 1.39 per pair in 1984, to 0.91 per pair in 1990, and to 0.75 per pair by 2006. , all of which reflect regional depletion of the Menhaden resource, Academia said.

The Atlantic Commission’s assessment that the Menhaden stock is not overfished is not accurate for the Chesapeake Bay, which is experiencing local population declines, he said.

In the absence of precise data on the number of menhadens in the bay, the William & Mary team used a supplemental feeding program to find that birds fed fish produced more chicks than birds not fed supplemental fish. confirmed. Ospreys can also eat other types of fish, but they prefer menhadens because they cluster on the surface and are easily accessible.

To rebuild the local populations of ospreys and other creatures that depend on Menhaden, commercial fisheries, both bait and return catches, should be used from Mobjack Bay, an important barometer of osprey populations, and from Chesapeake. Must be relocated from the entire bay. said Academia. “Menhaden populations in Mobjak Bay are not sufficient to sustain osprey populations at this time,” he said.

Commission spokesman Berger said the lack of data on the Menhaden resource in certain areas of the Atlantic coast limits the commission’s ability to report field data. However, she said she hopes to develop more location-specific data in the future.

“Developing models and data that can accommodate finer spatial scales is a priority for this type of research,” Berger wrote in an email. “The current stock assessment (scheduled for completion in 2025) will continue to assess Menhaden as a coastal-wide resource, but will begin exploring methods and data that can be used in the next assessment to include a regional component. is.”

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