How an angler and two government bureaucrats may have saved the Atlantic Ocean.
One of the anglers who typically showed up at ASMFC meetings to bend the ears of commissioners was Jim Price, who began his solitary study of striped bass carcasses in 1997. On occasion, Price would also go fishing with a marine biologist he knew from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, a burly guy by the name of Jim Uphoff.
Uphoff runs the Fisheries Habitat and Ecosystem Programs for the state of Maryland. In the late ’90s, he was working in and around the Chesapeake Bay as it was facing an incipient environmental disaster:striped bass from the estuary and its rivers were showing up with oozing red lesions on their flesh, and fishermen were demanding answers from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Uphoff was party to his fishing buddy Jim Price’s theory about the cause of this outbreak—that a growing striped bass population plus declining menhaden stocks left the stripers hungry, malnourished, weak, and chomping on other marine creatures that weren’t optimal sources of energy.
Uphoff was skeptical at first—afflicted, he admits, with a mentality common to fishery managers: “How can you have a problem finding food? The ocean is so big.” But new discoveries in bioenergetics, the study of how fish process energy from different food sources, eventually convinced him to take Price’s theories more seriously.
Looking harder into the ASMFC’s data, he noticed two things. First, the spawning potential “reference point” that the ASMFC set for menhaden was low compared to that of many other fish. Striped bass, for example, were only allowed to be fished down to 35 percent of maximum spawning potential. Second, the model the Menhaden Technical Committee used to derive the spawning potential estimate seemed overly complex and heavily dependent on industry-supplied data. So he devised a model that was simpler and could account for the impact of various predators on the menhaden stock.
In 2003, Uphoff went down to the NOAA lab in Beaufort to present his alternative in front of the scientists who had designed the one currently in use. When he ran his model, it showed that overfishing was occurring. The NOAA scientists, he says, were unimpressed. “Basically I was dead in the water in five minutes,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, interest in the menhaden problem was building among national environmental groups, many of whom learned about it from a 2001 article in Discover magazine by Rutgers historian H. Bruce Franklin. (Franklin was an avid angler himself and knew of Jim Price’s work.) By 2004, a coalition of anglers and environmentalists were demanding that the ASMFC adopt a harvest cap on menhaden fished from the Chesapeake Bay. The effort got some publicity in July 2005, when Greenpeace activists kayaked out to Cockrell Creek in front of Omega Protein’s Reedville factory and unfurled a splashy yellow banner that read “Factory Fishing is Overkill.”
In a vote later that year, the ASMFC agreed to implement a harvest cap. But the cap amount was calculated based on the average harvest from Omega Protein’s previous five years of fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. In other words, Omega wouldn’t sacrifice a single fish. Coalition leaders considered it to be the best they could get at the time—at least there was a check on the company’s activities for the first time in history. But others in the conservation community were not so happy. Tom Fote, an ASMFC commissioner from New Jersey and an ally of conservation, called it an “imaginary cap.”
Even an imaginary cap, it turned out, was too much for Virginia. In January 2006, Bob McDonnell, in his first month as Virginia’s newly elected attorney general, wrote a legal brief explaining that Virginia was not mandated to comply with the ASMFC’s decision. Documents I obtained show that this brief was based on a paper written by Shaun Gehan, then of Collier Shannon Scott, a law firm representing Omega Protein at the time. The state ultimately ended up complying the following year after a series of negotiations between Omega Protein, the ASMFC, and the state legislature.
While the ASMFC has proved itself deeply resistant to any action that might seriously affect Omega’s bottom line, it has also shown itself capable, at times, of making the sort of tough policy decision that can change the Atlantic marine world for the better. In 1982, the population of striped bass declined to fewer than 5 million fish. Overfishing and habitat degradation were threatening the existence of the species. The state of Maryland issued a five-year moratorium on striped bass fishing, turning the nursery and spawning-ground waters of the Chesapeake Bay into a kind of striper sanctuary. Soon, through the coordinated efforts of the ASMFC, the rest of the Atlantic states followed suit. Within a few years, the population came roaring back.
In 2007, there were 56 million stripers swimming around the Atlantic and its estuaries, gobbling up crabs, herring, and, of course, menhaden. Ecologists and anglers see this as a great success story and an argument for a more ecologically minded strategy of resource management. The reduction industry and its allies see things differently. One of Omega Protein’s closed-door arguments to the ASMFC was that anglers should be allowed to fish down the striped bass population, as that would remove a major competitor for menhaden, leaving more fish in the water for Omega Protein to catch.
Each year, Omega Protein scoops up between a quarter and a half a billion pounds of menhaden—as much as all of the ninety-nine factories that were operating in 1876 combined. More than half of Omega Protein’s sales come from exports abroad, with Asia and Europe representing the largest markets in a growing international aquaculture industry. Because it can take up to seven pounds of fish meal for a farmed specimen like salmon to put on one pound of body weight, Omega is capitalizing on a business model whereby menhaden are extracted from a wild ecosystem to fuel a much less efficient artificial one.
This vast protein extraction machine supports surprisingly few American jobs. A 2010 study by the economist James Kirkley at the Virginia Institute of Marine Resources found that the reduction industry has an $88 million economic impact on the Chesapeake Bay region, supplying 300 jobs at Omega Protein during the peak fishing season and 219 jobs in ancillary industries supported by the fishery. Recreational fishing, by comparison, has a $332 million economic impact in Virginia and Maryland, supporting 3,500 jobs, from bait and tackle shops to manufacturers of fishing equipment to charter-boat owners and captains—all of whom have an indirect stake in the health of the menhaden population.
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