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My Turn: Coastal health depends on one tiny fish

Can a decision about the future of a small bait fish determine the health of a coastal ecosystem and the future of its economy for decades? Considering that this fish is responsible for feeding mostly everything in the Atlantic Coast ecosystem, the answer is a resounding yes.

This month the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a board of appointed officials representing 15 states along the Atlantic Coast, will meet to determine the fate of this seemingly insignificant fish that many scientists and fishery managers agree is the key link to healthy fish populations and ocean wildlife.

Whether you are a sport fisherman, as I am, or one of the millions of people who enjoy eating freshly-caught seafood from the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, this is should be important to you. The management measures the commission adopts will help to chart the future health of the ocean and the East Coast economy for decades.

Often referred to as “bunker” by fishermen who use them as bait, the menhaden population has plummeted 90 percent over the past 25 years. Recreational fishermen have long seen the telltale signs of the depletion and its impact on marine life.

In the Chesapeake Bay, the percentage of menhaden in the diets of many recreational fish such as striped bass and weakfish has fallen from double to single digits in the last decade. Today, many striped bass show signs of malnutrition and poor health.

The main reason for the population’s collapse is the nearly unbridled harvesting of menhaden by one company. Last year, Omega Protein removed more than 410 million pounds from the ocean ecosystem and ground most of the catch into dietary supplements, fertilizer, pet food, and feed for fish, chickens and pigs. Omega Protein takes 80 percent of the catch; recreational and commercial fishing interests use the rest as bait.

The continued mismanagement also affects other ocean wildlife such as striped bass, bluefish, tuna, cobia, sea birds, osprey and whales, all of which feed on menhaden.

Due to the species’s value as forage fish for other ocean wildlife, management measures must address rebuilding the menhaden population. Short of this, the Atlantic Coast’s marine food web could unravel.

This tiny fish, which is vital to the ocean ecosystem’s health and the coastal economy, needs a recovery plan.

The fishing community will closely watch the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission when it meets in Baltimore on Dec. 14 to determine the ultimate fate of menhaden.

It needs to adopt strong conservation measures that underscore its value to the ecology and economy. To achieve this, the commission must adopt a coast-wide annual catch limit. To stop the overfishing that has occurred 32 of the last 54 years, managers must support measures that reduce the catch 50 percent below recent levels. Finally, last November the com- mission responded to more than 90,000 public comments by setting a new management target to rebuild the population. It should commit to meet that goal within five years.

By supporting these strong conservation measures, members of the commission can create an opportunity for the menhaden population to return to a sustainable level that will support recreational and commercial fishermen, businesses and the health of the ocean.

Like the striped bass and other marine life that are so dependent on menhaden, fishermen and businesses are inextricably linked to its long-term survival.And they are counting on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to support measures to rebuild the depleted menhaden population.

(Dave Shirley of York, Maine, teaches graduate courses in corporate social responsibility and environmental issues for Southern New Hampshire University Online. He is a sport fisherman and a former marina owner.)

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