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Menhaden: Overfished or bad research?

by Audrey Thomasson

A new scientific study released February 1 on the status of menhaden along the Atlantic coast has resulted in more questions than answers on whether the species are overfished—a claim that led to a decision last December by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to slash the allowable catch by 20%.

“If a more thorough assessment proves the stock is healthy and not overfished, Omega could ask to have the restriction rolled back and say, ‘You harmed us.’” — John Bull, VMRC

The new restriction forced Omega Protein of Reedville, one of the area’s largest employers with a $15 million payroll, to cut two fishing vessels and 50 positions, according to Monty Deihl, the company’s director of fishing operations.

Was the ASMFC decision to impose restrictions too hasty?

During the December meeting, it was the contention of a majority of commission members that menhaden are being overfished while other members questioned the reliability of the data being used. They asked the commission not to rush into imposing restrictions but to wait for a thorough study.

“The commission was under a great deal of pressure from sport fishing and environmentalists,” said Deihl. But the truth is, only a 2008 study showed overfishing, and by just 0.4%, while subsequent studies have been erratic, he said.

The February 1 report by ASMFC’s Technical Committee questioned if current methods of measuring menhaden stock are reliable based on the fact that only one major fishery, Omega Protein, remains on the East Coast.

“The Technical Committee said, ‘We do not trust our model. We need to develop a new model,’” said Deihl. The committee did several sensitivity studies in January, one showing the stock is overfished while a newer study model shows it was not. “Scientists are saying, ‘We can’t say that it’s overfished.’ This should bring into question if the (ASMFC) board members knew then what they know now, would they have made a 10% cut rather than 20%? There is a huge difference between the two models,” Deihl noted.

“The bottom line? What is needed is a new stock assessment . . . one that is more comprehensive, more in depth,” said Bull. “One that shows the overall health of the stock, what level of harvest would be safe and what level of harvest would constitute overfishing.

“What hurts Omega is that the science used was messed up . . . it couldn’t say if it was overfished, if the stock was healthy. But the ASMFC said ‘We’re going to cut it back anyway.’ If a more thorough assessment proves the stock is healthy and not overfished, Omega could ask to have the restriction rolled back and say ‘You harmed us.’”

Bull said the ASMFC is expected to complete a thorough assessment in a year.

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 04.03.2013

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