May/June 2012 A Fish Story

How an angler and two government bureaucrats may have saved the Atlantic Ocean.

By Alison Fairbrother

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.

Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government, and promotes the findings of independent scientists.


  • William Bartlett on May 09, 2012 9:53 AM:

    Dear Ms. Fairbrother,
    What great coverage of the menhaden issue.
    I can't see where you missed a thing.
    Thank you for all that you have been doing to bring back the menhaden.

  • Dick on May 09, 2012 12:43 PM:

    It seems like its a case of "Follow the Money" again. Lobbying and political contributions focused on Virginia and NJ outweigh the "science" of the ASMFC and the overwhelming logic of protecting the most important forage fish in the sea. ASMFC needs to grow a pair.

    Has anyone looked into buying out Omega via acquiring a majority of its outstanding stock? Then management policies could be made more eco-friendly by shareholder activism pressure on the board of directors. Certainly PEW could lead the way. Perhaps a coalition of ecology and recreational fishing groups could do it. Follow the money!

    The other aspect of Menhaden not covered in the excellent article is its unique ability to clean up harbors and estuaries by virtue of its filter-feeding. Conservation groups not directly involved with fishing are taking an interest in the plight of this poor fish. Oysters can't do it all alone. Water quality has an economic value.

  • Dave H on May 09, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Typical, argue that this is "only" a model, the "science isn't settled", the observed declines are "anecdotal", etc. Sounds like global warming, acid rain, and every other ecological cause the GOP opposes.

  • Bartley Tumolo on May 09, 2012 1:43 PM:

    The most complete article I have read on this subject, now we all must work for the future of the "lowly bunker", the anchor of the coastal fisheries... big fish eat little fish, and that's science we all understand !!

  • Jen Dalton on May 09, 2012 10:33 PM:

    A magnificent piece of research and writing. I feel I've been given a very well-rounded picture of a serious issue, made even more important because it shows the nature of corporate obscurantism, exposed by an almost cinematic process of gum-shoe scientific activism bringing about positive change. Thanks.

  • David Nyberg on May 10, 2012 6:31 PM:

    Gee, I thought this issue was well on the to being solved at an acceptable level for the fish. It is sad that ASMFC is not up to the task. Thanks to everyone who has brought this to the attention of the public. I believe that many will be keeping a close eye on what is going on.

  • Anna on May 11, 2012 3:11 AM:

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  • Devin on May 11, 2012 4:36 PM:

    Nice article! I saw it linked to from Andrew Sullivan's The Dish.

  • Jerry Jarombek on May 11, 2012 10:13 PM:

    Wonderful article. I tell my bait shop friends that this is their fight. When bunker are present, bass and blue fishing improves; when fishing improves more people go fishing; when more go fishing, bait shops sell more bait and tackle.

  • Anon on May 12, 2012 9:21 PM:

    Wonderful, wonderful article. I'm embarrassed to admit (especially as an environmentalist and sometime freshwater fisherman) my boyfriend and I always assumed the fish emulsion purchased for our garden bed came from scrap. The things you take for granted... my uncle always just buried fish scraps in a corner of his garden like his father before him did. I suppose I'll just start doing the same once I figure out a good raccoon barrier.

    This article with a note about the products Omega produces will be forwarded to quite a few people.

    Thank you, again.

  • Kevin Law on May 14, 2012 3:24 PM:

    "No little fish, no big fish"

  • Tom M. on May 16, 2012 7:59 AM:

    Dave H on May 09, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Typical, argue that this is "only" a model, the "science isn't settled", the observed declines are "anecdotal", etc. Sounds like global warming, acid rain, and every other ecological cause the GOP opposes.

    Gee Dave, what a typical idiotic, liberal thing to say. The only REAL environmentalists are hunters and fishermen as we put our money where our mouth is. Smelly hippies talk a lot while using every new electronic device available and driving electric cars which run on electricity produced by burning coal, therefore producing acid rain. You and Al Gore can bite me.

  • Rick Edmund on May 17, 2012 8:34 PM:

    As the article stated, rockfish eat small crabs too. With less menhaden, more crabs are eaten. Up to 100 crabs might be found in the belly of rockfish. I live on Smith Island, MD where the abundance of crabs affects the Island's income. Another reason to restrict the numbers of menhaden caught. An excellent well researched and written article.

  • Alan on May 19, 2012 9:08 AM:

    I can only hope the environment and menhaden win this battle. Over the last few years, Virginia has been taken over by the radical right and are hell bent on destroying everything that does not meet their business first agenda.

    I do like the idea of controlling the stock of the company.

    Surely a coalition of conversation groups could do this.

  • Marilou McCrosky on May 19, 2012 9:34 AM:

    You have done a lot of research but you missed the fact that the menhaden does not use the Chesapeake Bay as a nursery. They spawn out in the ocean. This is an important piece of this puzzle. Certainly a rise in the population of the menhaden would help restore the bay, but stopping a harvest that an existing population has adapted to could have disastrous consequences. I know that quantities of menhaden have been harvested consistently for over 100 years. Because this timeframe is outside of the lifespan of this species, evolution to adapt to this harvest pressure must be present or the population would have been eliminated.
    In addition, the processing plant is located on Cockrell's Creek, we use the possessive. I grew up in Reedville.

  • Sherilyn Neurles on May 19, 2012 11:32 PM:

    A pertinent and informative article, but what happened to past tense? How about:

    On a balmy afternoon in late summer, Jim Price REACHED into the body cavity of a striped bass and PULLED out a spleen. The sixty-eight-year-old jewelry-store owner PALPATED the organ with long gloved fingers, checking for disease. Finding none, he SET it aside before turning his attention back to the carcass. “There’s something here,” he BARKED, as he SLICED into the stomach with a scalpel and his volunteer assistant Jerry MOVED in for a closer look.


    I know we tell jokes in present tense ("a horse walks into a bar'), but it drives me nuts in print and broadcast journalism.

  • sandra kaufman on May 23, 2012 10:16 PM:

    great story, I read the book "the most important fish in the sea" and I was "hooked" on this and other ocean/sea/waterways issues. More people need to know. thank you.

  • george thomas on June 02, 2012 10:47 AM:

    As a recreational angler from the Keys to the Gulf of Maine, the decline of the menhaden has been obvious for a decade - and with their disappearance has come the loss of the game fish that fuel the regional economy. Tackle shops in Maine have closed as the striper population has declined corresponding to the decline of mehaden and other bait fish. In Maine lobsters are being free-range fed in feeding stations (baited traps that are readily exited) using herring and other bait fish that are systematically harvested. The decline is everywhere apparent.

  • Aaron on June 02, 2012 11:25 AM:

    Wow, that was a fantastic read. I'll be looking forward to your work in the future.

  • Charlton Price on July 25, 2012 9:09 PM:

    This is magisterially competent research and editorially brilliant reportage. In the tradition of Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, and Ida Tarbell, masters of muckraking. Alison Fairbrother is helping to revive and sustain the higher standard of investigative journalism we so desperately need.

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