Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

McMurray on Menhaden: Don’t Kill the Comeback

A striped bass caught while munching on menhaden. Photo by Capt. John McMurray.

Charter boat captain and Mid-Atlantic fishery management council member John McMurray has an important message about menhaden in his latest post at the site Reel Time.

McMurray’s thrilled to see the return of large schools of these important bait fish in the New York waters he fishes, and the striped bass, sharks, and whales that are benefiting from this food source. But he’s worried about what might happen to menhaden—also called “bunker”—when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meets next month:

“What road they choose to go down will likely determine whether or not we’ll continue to see those massive bunker schools we’ve seen in the last few years, and whether they will recover their abundance and range from Maine to Florida.”

McMurray says his first-hand observations on the water fit with the major findings of the latest stock assessment. He’s seeing schools of large sized menhaden but not many of the smaller juveniles.

“The assessment also confirms that abundance of menhaden – the total numbers of fish – remains near historic lows, and that ‘recruitment’ (the number of fish surviving past 1 year) isn’t great,” McMurray writes, “So yes, there may be a good amount of large adult bunker, but overall menhaden numbers don’t seem to be increasing.”

(Also, as Massachusetts-based fisherman Patrick Paquette has noted, the menhaden recovery has not yet come to New England, because the fish has not been restored to its historic range.)

McMurray says the real problem is that the recent assessment still doesn’t do what the fishery managers have had as a goal for more than a decade now, to protect and maintain the important ecological role Atlantic menhaden play along the coast.

“The assessment addresses only the species’ ability to sustain harvest and avoid depletion,” McMurray writes. “What it doesn’t address is its capacity to provide adequate forage for striped bass, bluefish, whales, dolphin, birds, and everything else that eats bunker within their historic range. This sort of single-species stock assessment leaves a lot of questions unanswered.”

Which brings us to next month’s meeting of the ASMFC: The menhaden industry, which kills millions of these fish in order to grind them into fish meal, oil and other products, is arguing for an increase in the allowable catch. Such a move would chiefly benefit just one state, Virginia, which is home to the company that takes the great majority of the menhaden catch. McMurray says increasing the catch quota without addressing the ecosystem role of menhaden would be a big mistake:

“Do we really want to give this company more fish to grind up for low-value products? To me the new stock assessment and the fairly recent influx of adult bunker in my neck of the woods – which has so obviously brought in extraordinary numbers of predators – argues not for increasing harvest. It argues strongly for managing them with the needs of such predators in mind…. This is not going to be easy for managers to do, but it needs to be done.”

The ASMFC will consider action on the Atlantic menhaden catch limits on May 5. You can contact the commissioners here.


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