Changing Planet

The Bottom Line: Big Turnout for Little Menhaden

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has seen a lot in its 70-year history but nothing quite like this. More than 128,000 people flooded the commission’s inboxes with postcards and emails last month, a new record for public comment. Scientists, small business owners, nature lovers, and anglers sent letters and spoke out at public hearings. And it was all about a fish that almost no one ever eats—Atlantic menhaden.

I’ve written about menhaden before; small, bony, and oily, it isn’t much of a meal for humans. But it’s a favorite food for ocean wildlife including striped bass and bluefish, weakfish and whales, tuna and ospreys. Menhaden form a critical part of the ocean food web and that makes overfishing them a serious threat.

The industrial fishing fleet takes menhaden by the hundreds of millions in what’s called a “reduction” fishery:  they’re “reduced” by grinding and boiling into a variety of products including fertilizer and feed for livestock and aquaculture. It’s the East Coast’s largest fishery by weight, yet it is largely unregulated. There is still no limit on how many menhaden can be caught at sea. Over the past three decades, the Atlantic menhaden population has plunged 90 percent to historically low levels.

Once you know these facts you can understand the huge show of concern about this little fish and why so many people from so many walks of life wrote to the ASMFC:

  • 94 leading scientists wrote because they know how valuable forage fish are to the health of the oceans.
  • Groups of birders and whale watchers wrote because they know menhaden help feed the animals they love.
  • Thousands of recreational anglers and small business owners wrote because of a simple fact: big fish need little ones like menhaden for food.

A recent study of “forage fish” found they are worth twice as much in the water—where they feed more valuable species—as they are in the nets of a reduction industry.  But even that estimate is low because it did not include the eye-popping economic impact of recreational fishing. On the Atlantic coast alone, recreational anglers add nearly $11 billion a year to the U.S. economy while supporting more than 90,000 jobs.  As one group of business owners wrote to the commission, “Simply put, menhaden help support our businesses, and are a major economic driver in our local economies.”

The ASMFC meets December 14 in Baltimore to enact a plan that will meet its goal of ending overfishing and managing menhaden “as a critical ecosystem component.” Unfortunately, some have presented this as a choice between the environment and jobs. But wise management policies do not pit conservation against commerce; rather, they recognize that a vibrant coastal economy needs a healthy ocean ecosystem. That is why Pew is calling on the commission to cut the menhaden catch in half and enact the first coast-wide limit on the fishery.  And we are not alone.  Tens of thousands of people agree that keeping more of these little fish in the water brings the biggest benefits to us all. Please join us and let the commissioners know you want them to act.

Lee Crockett joined The Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2007 as director of Federal Fisheries Policy. As Ddirector, U.S. Oceans, he led Pew’s efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote ecosystem-based fisheries management in the United States under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal law that governs ocean fish management. As director, Crockett oversees all of Pew’s U.S. fisheries campaigns. These include efforts in the Northeast, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Caribbean, and the Pacific. Before joining Pew, Crockett was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest national coalition dedicated exclusively to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Under his leadership, the campaign helped efforts to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. Previously, he was a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, working on a variety of fisheries, environmental and boating safety issues. Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut. Before college, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s also an avid angler who enjoys fishing the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
  • Saving Seafood

    The following analysis was produced by Saving Seafood staff writers.

    In a recent National Geographic opinion piece (“The Bottom Line: Big Turnout for Little Menhaden”, 12/6), Pew Environment Group’s Lee Crockett continues his organization’s misleading Atlantic menhaden campaign by repeating several claims that could be considered “Pew-generated”.

    The article includes the widely circulated Pew Environment claim that the menhaden population, “has plunged 90 percent to historically low levels.” Here, Mr. Crockett has disingenuously chosen a specific year of record highs to begin his “statistic”, creating a fictional, pessimistic decline, while ignoring substantial periods of the fishery’s history which demonstrate the natural fluctuation of the population. In fact, current menhaden biomass levels are similar to those seen in the 1960s, which were followed by record high population estimates in the 1970s and 1980s. A recent analysis in a Politifact investigation published by the Providence Journal (“Pew Environment Group says the Atlantic menhaden population has declined by 90 percent in recent years”,12/11), Politifact Rhode Island, an independent journalistic source, found Pew’s assertion to be “mostly false” because of their selective representation of the menhaden’s history.

    Mr. Crockett cites a “recent study of ‘forage fish’ such as menhaden” to support his argument that a 50 percent reduction in menhaden harvest is necessary. Mr. Crockett doesn’t tell readers that the study’s sponsor, the Lenfest Ocean Program, is managed by Pew.

    Mr. Crockett cites “a letter signed by 94 leading scientists” to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) saying current measures are inadequate. Mr. Crockett doesn’t tell readers that at least 31 of the signers are affiliated with, or are part of organizations receiving funding from Pew Environment. Few of the signers have direct experience working on menhaden issues. One of them is an English professor, not a scientist.

    Mr. Crockett states that “More than 128,000 people flooded the commission’s inboxes…for public comment.” What he doesn’t say is that response was generated by Pew-organized online campaigns – in partnership with Greenpeace and other groups – using alarmist and sensationalized headlines that selectively presented facts. The validity of the number of comments has also been called into question.

    In last week’s ASMFC menhaden board meeting, New York Commissioner Pat Augustine York challenged some of the public comment that was received from large special interest groups like Mr. Crockett’s Pew Environment. Mr. Augustine described how he became suspicious of the amount of public comment coming in from these groups and began to call individuals who had signed petitions distributed by these organizations. To his dismay, the first seven people in a row he called, were not only unaware their name was included on a circulated letter, but also had no idea what a menhaden was.

    In Mr. Crockett’s op-ed, all arguments for severe regulation lead back to Pew-managed, Pew-organized, or Pew-funded efforts. In the lobbying and public relations world this type of manufactured grassroots support is known as “astroturf”.

  • I’m counting on various commercially paid people to create a disinformation campaign about this, saying the fish haven’t really declined. Or that the analysis is fictional. Well, when I was a kid we used to fish around miles-long schools of these fish, and those schools are terribly diminished. I also happen to live within a mile of the ruins of 3 menhaden processing plants whose heyday ended in the mid 1900s because they were so good at what they did. When you take it all, you’re left with nothing.

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