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Progress on protecting menhaden, striped bass

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Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is holding industry accountable over harvest limits for menhaden, and requiring circle hooks in angling for striped bass.

With your help, we spoke up this year to protect a critical species of fish – Atlantic menhaden, or bunker.

And we’re making a difference: Omega Protein, the giant, foreign-owned company that controls the harvest of menhaden along the East Coast, is being held accountable for its outright defiance of a fishing cap in Chesapeake Bay. We need to continue speaking up.

Photo: Artie Raslich / Gotham Whale

In September we sounded the alarm: Omega deliberately exceeded a cap approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Menhaden are a favorite forage of the whales we are seeing off Long Island, and they sustain striped bass, bluefish, tuna, codfish, osprey, and bald eagles.

Their abundance in estuaries like the Hudson helps to buffer depleted populations of river herring and shad from the effects of predatory fish. Omega harvests vast quantities of menhaden and grinds them up to produce fish oil and fish meal.

Prompted by our action, hundreds of emails went to the commission demanding accountability. And in October, the commission voted unanimously to find Virginia out of compliance for allowing the excess harvest. The company’s quota for Chesapeake Bay will be reduced.

The commission made some important decisions on this and other matters – including measures to protect striped bass along the coast – during its annual meeting in New Hampshire in late October. Below are highlights. You can read more in this PDF.

Menhaden

We applaud the ASMFC for standing up to Omega Protein by enforcing the Chesapeake Bay cap and finding Virginia out of compliance. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce is being asked to uphold the finding, and has the power to impose a moratorium on menhaden fishing.

Please help us ensure that the finding is upheld by signing a petition via Menhaden Defenders.

As we’ve said, menhaden are one of the most important forage fishes in our ecosystem. The industrial fishing giant Omega Protein mines massive quantities of them up and down the coast, causing localized depletions, which directly impacts declining populations of striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish and other forage species. After a push by Riverkeeper and our partners, the use of enormous, industrial “purse seine” nets are now outlawed in New York waters.

At the same time, Omega sought and won a “sustainable” fishery label from the Marine Stewardship Council, despite strong objections raised by Riverkeeper and other organizations.

SAI Global, the company that evaluated Omega Protein for a Marine Stewardship Council label, is revisiting that decision.

Striped Bass

Striped bass are in decline coastwide and the stock is considered overfished. In addition, approximately 15 percent of fish caught by anglers in freshwater die from stress or hook induced injuries after being released. As a result, the Commission’s Striped Bass Board initiated Addendum VI, which requires an 18 percent reduction from 2017 fishing quotas. Recreational and commercial sectors will share the pain equally, since striped bass are a common resource and all stakeholders should do their part to rebuild the stock.

To arrive at the 18 percent reduction in mortality, the commission decided:

Instead of allowing one fish per angler at 35 inches, which most anglers had advocated for, the board recommends for the coastal fishery a limit of one fish per angler in the 28- to 35-inch range. Their reasoning was to ensure fishermen went home with a fish and to protect the larger more fecund females. Currently in the Hudson River and tributaries north of the George Washington Bridge, April through November, registered anglers may keep one fish between 18 and 28 inches OR one fish larger than 40 inches per day. [Also, see health advice on eating fish from the Hudson; children and women of childbearing years should eat no fish.]

To eliminate the high rate of dead discards, circle hooks became mandatory tackle for bait fishermen all along the coast. States will have until 2021 to fully implement this provision. We feel the use of circle hook is a good requirement that will help protect striped bass from unnecessary loss and stress. We recommend the use of barbless hooks whenever possible, to further alleviate stress when releasing the fish. I only fish barbless, and have no problems catching fish as long as the line is taught. Photo at right: This 60 pound striped bass was caught by the author using a barbless jig.

The commission is allowing each state to develop its own regulations to achieve the 18 percent mortality. While we applaud the commission and board for taking action, we feel that a greater mortality reduction would have been achieved if the states were mandated to take an undivided stance.

Fishery managers will have to decide if these measures will be adequate to meet the necessary goals. We recommend that New York State require non-offset circle hooks, shorten the season, and protect trophy fish – the oldest and largest females that carry the most eggs. They should be released and given the chance to spawn. As we provide extra care for expecting humans, we need to provide extra care to stripers carrying eggs, as unnecessary stress could cause them to skip the spawning season. And we need to provide this level of protection all along the coast, in areas like Raritan Bay. We hope New Jersey follows suit.

States are required to submit implementation plans by November 30, 2019 for review by the Technical Committee and approval by the Board in February 2020. States must implement mandatory circle hook requirements by January 1, 2021. All other provisions of Addendum VI must be implemented by April 1, 2020.

All in all, fishery management is a work in progress. We will continue to advocate for ways to help these species rebound.

To the fishes!

Earlier

Protect Atlantic menhaden: Hold Omega Protein accountable

Hudson River striped bass fishing: What you need to know

Striped bass mortality increases: fishing regs to change

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