May/June 2012 A Fish Story

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

By Alison Fairbrother

Another industry with a significant economic stake in menhaden is the commercial lobster business, which uses menhaden as bait. In New England, decades of fishing pressure on sea herring, the preferred bait fish for lobster traps, have left the stock in precarious shape. Unable to purchase enough cheap herring to fill their traps, many lobstermen have turned to menhaden, lobster’s second-favorite food. In 2006, menhaden made up just 6 percent of lobster bait in Maine. Today it could be as high as 32 percent, according to the Fishermen’s Voice, a publication serving the men and women who work on Maine’s waters. Supplying those lobstermen is a bait industry that fishes primarily off the New Jersey and Virginia shores. Bait fishermen pull far fewer menhaden out of the sea than Omega Protein does, but those fish are worth more, pound for pound: bait commands a higher price per fish. In addition, the industry’s economic impact is spread among several different players and states.

All these stakeholder industries together have a massive economic footprint. And yet, precisely because it is dominated by a single, powerful entity, the reduction industry has held by far the greatest political sway over the management decisions of the ASMFC. This state of affairs is helped along by the fact that the bait and reduction industries have formed an unlikely alliance against any sort of regulation that might inhibit their catch—despite their being in competition for limited supplies of menhaden. This alliance is historically strange. In the nineteenth century, bait fishermen rioted and burned down at least one reduction factory in Maine, in response to the reduction industry’s massive sweep of the resource. “Now there’s no memory of this at all,” Bruce Franklin told me. “Omega has convinced the bait fishery that an attack on one is an attack on all. But in fact, the bait fishery is being allowed to fish from Omega’s crumbs that fall off the table.”

Recreational anglers, by contrast, are some of the most passionate advocates for the conservation of menhaden—or bunker, as the fish is known in New England. Anglers don’t harvest much of the resource themselves—the ASMFC estimates less than 1 percent of the total catch—but they know that where menhaden go, so go stripers, bluefish, weakfish, and dozens of other fish species they like to catch and eat. It is not uncommon, when scanning the popular angler message boards online, to see messages like “Last night Stripers were going berserk over juvy bunker!”

Throughout the 2000s, marine biologists continued to report diseased, scrawny striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, the spawning ground for 75 percent of the Atlantic migratory population. In 2006, official ASMFC science showed depleted stocks of weakfish as well. The reason: with low numbers of menhaden, striped bass were out-competing weakfish for prey, and increasingly munching on weakfish juveniles to make up for lost calories. That study came on the heels of another on ospreys, which feed heavily on menhaden in Virginia. According to decades of research by the College of William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, by 2006 osprey parents were bringing one-third fewer fish back to their chicks than they were in the 1970s. Survival of osprey nestlings in Virginia had fallen to its lowest levels since DDT was first introduced to the area. In the 1980s, more than 70 percent of the osprey diet was menhaden; by 2006 it was down to 27 percent.

Yet despite the steady drip of evidence, and continued lobbying by angler and environmental groups, the ASMFC took no action to limit the coastal menhaden catch in the mid-2000s. When pressed, commissioners would point to the stock assessments, which continued to show that the menhaden population was relatively healthy and not overfished.

In 2009, the Menhaden Technical Committee updated its methodology for estimating the menhaden population—something it does every five years—and then ran the menhaden catch data through a new computer model. The results weren’t much different: although the numbers of menhaden were declining, the estimated number of eggs produced by spawning female menhaden was at the target level, so according to the reference point, menhaden weren’t being overfished.

Shortly thereafter, a colleague of Jim Uphoff’s, a biologist named Alexei Sharov, got hold of the computer model that had been updated by NOAA scientists. Going through the code line by line, Sharov, one of Maryland’s representatives on the Technical Committee, found a fundamental miscalculation buried inside the model. Uphoff, meanwhile, studied the methodology of the code and discovered that NOAA had both underestimated the amount of fish killed by the industry and overestimated the spawning potential. Sharov brought these two mistakes to his peers on the committee, and it was agreed that corrections needed to be made.

Several months later, after the model had finished running a second time, the science finally caught up with what Jim Price and the anglers had been saying for decades: even using the lax reference points developed by the ASMFC, menhaden had been subject to overfishing in thirty-two of the past fifty-four years. When the assessment was then peer reviewed by a group of international scientists, the reviewers deemed that the reference point currently in use for menhaden—8 percent of maximum spawning potential—was not sufficiently safe or precautionary.

Furthermore, the number of menhaden swimming in the Atlantic had declined by 88 percent since 1983—to a level so low that it caused George Lapointe, former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, to have what he called an “oh shit moment.”

Five months later, in August 2011, the ASMFC reviewed its menhaden stock assessment and, in the fashion of twelve-step programs, begrudgingly admitted that it had a problem. They prepared a long and technical document to send out for public comment. At the heart of it was the question of how big the base population of menhaden should be, as expressed in terms of spawning potential. The document listed four options. The lowest was the number ASMFC had long recommended: 8 percent of maximum spawning potential, or MSP. The highest option was 40 percent of MSP. Even that was far below what independent scientists have advised in recent years. A 2011 paper published in the journal Science recommended precautionary management for forage fish, leaving up to 75 percent of virgin biomass in the water to account for the needs of predators. Still, the range of options represented a major advance. Of the 91,000 comments the ASMFC received on the proposal over the next three months, the majority argued for 40 percent.

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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