A tiny fish that fuels a healthy Atlantic ecosystem now sparks industry debate

A tiny fish that fuels a healthy Atlantic ecosystem now sparks industry debate

When researchers examined 84 nests of the fish-eating bird in Mobajack Bay, an inlet at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, in mid-June, they expected to find evidence of a healthy new generation of ospreys. They found only three youths.

According to scientists at the College of William & Mary, this was the lowest breeding number in more than 50 years of monitoring local populations of raptors. And they said it represents the latest evidence of a long-term decline in breeding success due to Gulf-wide shortages of the bird’s favorite food – Atlantic menhaden.

Millions of small, silvery fish play an important role in the ecology of the coastal waters of the East Seaboard, providing food for larger fish such as striped bass and weaklings; marine mammals including whales and dolphins; and birds such as bald eagles, great blue herons, and brown pelicans. Fish are rich in nutrients, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids; They consume small organisms such as plankton and they filter large amounts of ocean water.

But they are also a mainstay of the commercial fishing industry, caught in large quantities to be processed into feed for crabs and lobsters, and in large quantities for so-called depletion fisheries, in which they are ground to death. are kept on and turned into products including fish oil. and fish meal.

This year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal regulator, increased the amount of menhaden caught along the entire Atlantic Coast to 233,550 metric tons for the next two years, a nearly 20 percent increase from the previous two years. The commission said the new quota would provide additional fishing opportunities while reducing the risk of harming the fish ecosystem.

The agency concluded last August that there was no evidence that menhaden were being “overfished” throughout its range when measured by “ecological reference points,” a mix of fish predators and prey. The Network, which has guided the Commission’s menhaden policy since 2020, has replaced it. The practice of management by a single species.

While increasing the beach catch for menhaden, the commission left its quota unchanged at 51,000 metric tons, or about 244 million fish, for the reduction in fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay, based on an average of 0.46 pounds per fish. Along the entire Atlantic coast, the agency authorized the catch of about 1.2 billion fish.

Critics of the commission say that removing such large amounts of fish from the bay is damaging the ecosystem in which menhaden plays a central role, making it more difficult for species such as osprey and striped bass to survive and thrive.

“The Virginia-based menhaden fishery is decimating stocks of Atlantic menhaden in and around the Chesapeake Bay,” Noah Bressman, professor of fish biology at the University of Maryland’s Salisbury, wrote in a 2021 letter to Maryland officials. Menhaden from the Gulf are contributing to the extinction of many species that depend on menhaden.”

“A number of factors are responsible for the decline in other species,” said Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the commission. For example, he said, even vulnerable fish populations have been affected by high levels of hunting and disease in recent years.

In May, a group of Maryland recreational fishermen sued the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, a state agency, claiming that it had contributed to the decline of menhaden in and around the Chesapeake Bay by “rubber stamping” the latest quotas set by the Atlantic Commission. has contributed.

The Southern Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization said the Virginia agency’s decision was contributing to a decline in populations of menhaden and other species that depend on them, and it was hurting the recreational fishing industry, which the organization said that it contributes $1.3 billion per year to Virginia’s economy. ,

The maximum harvest set by the Commission for Virginia and the Atlantic Coast “does not absolve the Virginia Commission of its duty to conduct an analysis based on state-specific considerations prescribed by law—the reasonable maximum harvest in the Virginia portion of the Gulf, and the appropriate conservation measures,’ ‘ according to the complaint filed May 10 in circuit court in the city of Richmond.

Phil Zlesak, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, said the group is seeking a hearing on the case in September.

The lawsuit accused the state agency of issuing the regulation outside the period set by state law from October to December and of failing to conduct its own analysis of conditions in state waters when adopting the commission’s new quotas. It asked the court to invalidate the state agency’s regulation and require a new rule that would protect Virginia waters, including the state’s share of the Chesapeake Bay.

The state agency declined to comment.

Omega Protein, a company based in Reedville, Virginia, which harvests menhaden for conversion into fish oil and other products, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but supported the commission’s argument that excessive amounts of menhaden No fish has been caught. A spokesman for the company, Ben Landry, said that the commission’s current limit on taking menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay was one of the lowest in the 150-year history of the bay’s fishery, and that there was no scientific basis for the claim that the fish were locally endemic. has ended since.

Mr. Landry pointed to striped bass as an example of a fish that had been “severely depleted” in Atlantic waters for reasons other than its food source, which he attributed to “excessive” recreational fishing. attributed to, which should be stopped by emergency regulations.

“It is clear that the very precautious Chesapeake Bay cap for menhaden is not an obstacle to the return of high levels of striped bass populations,” he said.

one in statement on its websiteThe company said the increase in total allowable catch for menhaden was “fully consistent” with the ecological reference points that form the basis of the commission’s new management of the fish.

Along the coast since 2015, there has been an increase in the striped bass population. But after recreational catches of striped bass nearly doubled last year through 2021, the Atlantic Commission took steps in May to rebuild the population by limiting the maximum size of fish caught by recreational fishermen to 31 inches.

Paul Eidman, founder of Menhaden Defenders, a nonprofit that advocates for the rebuilding of the species’ stocks along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, called on Omega to use large vessels and spotters to catch menhaden in large numbers in the Chesapeake Bay. Accused of using industrial techniques including planes. Which are not sustainable, and which contribute to the decline of other species.

“It’s all about the impact of these huge 195-foot ships,” Mr. Eidmann said in an interview. “They take hundreds of millions of fish at a time, and it’s basically mined parts of the bay. Game fishes, birds and all these other creatures suffer for it. It is not that the fishes are not there; This is because they are being destroyed so fast that nature cannot replenish them.

Mr. Eidman, who also operates fishing charter boats out of Monmouth County, NJ, said the Chesapeake Bay is an important source of game fish such as striped bass on the entire Atlantic Coast. He urged Omega to fish outside the gulf to help its menhaden and other fish stocks recover from years of overfishing by his and other advocates.

“Our argument is: stay out of the ocean, leave the estuary alone and be a good steward,” he said. “Omega has always talked about being a member of the community and always giving back. If he cared that much, he would have taken his expedition out to sea and left the estuary alone to do its job.”

Outside the Chesapeake Bay, menhaden numbers have increased since the Atlantic Commission determined in 2012 that the fish was being harvested at a rate that would exceed its reproductive capacity if not corrected. In response, the agency temporarily cut its total allowable catch by 20 percent along the entire coast, and the fish population recovered within two years.

Mr Eidman said evidence of its recent abundance can be found off the coasts of New York and New Jersey, where more of their predators, including humpback whales, tuna, sharks and bald eagles, have returned.

At Mobjack Bay, the latest ratio of osprey young per nest is only 0.03, well below the 1.15 rate needed to sustain the population, said Michael Academia, an osprey researcher at the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary. Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The record-low level of osprey chicks in the area follows a steady decline in breeding rates from 1.39 per pair in 1984, 0.91 in 1990 and 0.75 by 2006, all reflecting local depletion of menhaden stocks, Mr Academia said.

That said, the Atlantic Commission’s assessment that menhaden stocks were not overfished was not accurate for the Chesapeake Bay, where numbers were depleted locally.

Since there is no precise data on the numbers of menhaden in the Gulf, the William & Mary team used a supplemental feeding program to confirm that birds that eat the fish have longer young lives than those that do not receive supplemental fish. Is. Although ospreys may eat other types of fish, they prefer menhaden as the species tends to be at the surface, and therefore readily available.

To rebuild local populations of osprey and other creatures that depend on menhaden, the commercial fishing industry, both for bait and bycatch, must move out of Mobjack Bay – an important barometer of osprey populations – and completely From the Chesapeake Bay, Mr. Academia said. “The menhaden population in Mobjack Bay is currently not sufficient to sustain the osprey population,” he said.

Commission spokeswoman, Ms. Berger, said a lack of data on menhaden stocks in specific parts of the Atlantic Coast limited the agency’s ability to report local data. But he said he hopes to develop more location-specific data in the future.

“The development of models and data that can better address spatial scales is a research priority for the species,” Ms. Berger wrote in an email. “The current stock assessment (to be completed in 2025) will still assess menhaden as a coastal stock, but it will begin to explore methods and data that can be used for regional components in the next assessment.”

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