How an angler and two government bureaucrats may have saved the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, the ASMFC is responsible for managing twenty-four species that swim, crawl, and scuttle between the shoreline and three miles out to sea, from the tip of Maine to the southernmost edge of Florida, where the Atlantic Ocean washes into the Gulf of Mexico. Every three months, politically appointed commissioners from fifteen Atlantic states and two federal agencies spend the better part of a week in windowless hotel conference rooms in coastal cities, arguing and occasionally coming to some tepid agreement about how to regulate striped bass, weakfish, American lobster, horseshoe crab, coastal shark, and forage fish like herring and Atlantic menhaden.
Science is the coin of the realm at the ASMFC. It’s the basis upon which regulatory battles are won and lost. Through testimony and fervent appeals, interest groups subtly manipulate fisheries science, leading to a constant “my science is better than your science” arms race. ASMFC meeting rooms are filled with non-scientist commissioners who begin their testimony with sentences like “Our science is not good,” or “We should delay action until we have better science.”
For the first twenty years, industry members had seats on the ASMFC’s menhaden committees, managing the very resource in which they had a financial stake. Nor was industry’s role purely administrative. Menhaden industry employees also sat on the science and statistical committees, ostensibly to assess the health and status of the menhaden population in the Atlantic. Meeting minutes from the 1980s and ’90s suggest, however, that industry members saw ASMFC meetings as opportunities to coordinate among themselves. At one meeting in 1983, in a possible indication that the industry was more worried about menhaden population levels than its public pronouncements suggested, representatives of Omega Protein, then called the Zapata Haynie Corporation, conferred with their competitors about shortening the fishing season and letting fish grow older and fatter before they were caught.
Company representatives remained on the menhaden management board until 2001, when conservation-minded regulators pointed out that menhaden was the only species managed by the ASMFC that openly enabled stakeholder votes on regulatory decisions. The industry representatives were kicked out in a close vote. But Omega continues to cast a long shadow over the ASMFC’s activities. In 2009, John V. O’Shea, ASMFC’s executive director, appeared in a promotional video for the company. He traveled to Omega’s corporate headquarters in Houston on the government’s dime, and stuck fairly close to a script provided by company executives, according to e-mails obtained through a public records request. The video remains on Omega Protein’s Web site, under their “Sustainability” tab, despite the fact that the arguments O’Shea articulated have since been contradicted by his own agency’s science. O’Shea has acknowledged that it was a poor idea to make the video.
Today, from grade school onward, students are taught in biology class to think of ocean ecosystems as webs of interdependence. Marine mammals eat big fish, big fish eat little fish, little fish filter particles like zooplankton and phytoplankton out of the water and convert plankton into a usable form of energy for big fish so they’ll be able to swim around and find little fish to eat. One of nature’s great dramas is its ruthless consumption of itself. The ASMFC’s fishery management plans, however, do not take account of the vast interconnectedness of ocean life. Rather, the agency is guided by an older and more utilitarian doctrine that is commonly characterized as “single-species management,” in which the primary concern is to determine how much of a particular species can be removed from the ocean without undermining that species’s ability to reproduce.
Single-species management is “an aggressive killing strategy,” says Ken Stump, a fisheries policy expert who has tracked marine science and management issues for the Marine Fish Conservation Network and Greenpeace. “It is premised on the assumption that you can remove 50 to 80 percent of an animal population and maintain high productivity, while you are fishing down a population to an incredibly low level.”
For menhaden, that level is set via a dizzying process that begins with the catch information logged by Omega’s ship captains and data gathered by the NOAA agent in Reedville. Those numbers are combined with several other data streams and then run through a computer model that takes into account historical information about the number of eggs that spawning females tend to produce and what proportion of menhaden tend to be killed by predators and fishermen. From all that, the model generates an estimate of the current “spawning potential” of adult female menhaden in the Atlantic, or the number of eggs they are capable of producing.
This estimate then goes before the ASMFC Menhaden Technical Committee, which is made up of NOAA scientists and biologists from state fisheries agencies. Their job is to weigh the menhaden’s current spawning potential against an estimate of how many eggs menhaden would produce in an imaginary world with no fishermen. The ratio of these two figures is called “maximum spawning potential.”
It is from these estimates that the committee derives the real magic number: the threshold below which the menhaden population would be unable to replenish or sustain itself. This threshold, which is debated and then voted on by the full commission, is called a “reference point.” The reference point currently in use for menhaden is 8 percent of maximum spawning potential. That is to say: according to the ASMFC, the Atlantic menhaden population can safely be fished down to 8 percent of the spawning potential that it would possess in a natural state.
This 8 percent level suits the reduction industry just fine, because it leaves plenty of headroom in the amount of fish it can extract from the ocean every year. But what remains behind in the water is an insanely small population from an ecological point of view. And it is far from ideal if you’re a recreational angler who fishes for striped bass, bluefish, or weakfish—the holy trinity of game fish on the Eastern Seaboard, all of which prey on menhaden. For anglers, the health of Atlantic predator fish is inextricably linked to the size and availability of menhaden in the ecosystem. Fishery managers may not be required to consider the ways in which ocean life is linked, but fishermen are keenly aware of the dynamics of the system.
And so, for decades, representatives from sport-fishing groups like the Coastal Conservation Association have descended on ASMFC meetings to lobby commissioners about changing the reference point and letting the menhaden population grow. Since the mid-1990s they have been joined by environmentally minded groups, including the National Coalition for Marine Conservation and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which came early to an understanding of the role forage fish play in maintaining the broader Atlantic ecosystem. But they have been no match for the lobbyists from Omega Protein. Until recently, they could do little to change the internal and industry-friendly logic that guided the setting of the ASMFC’s regulations.
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