View Full Version : Truce Reached in R.I. Menhaden War

12-03-2007, 05:54 AM
For now, a truce in the menhaden harvest debate

01:00 AM EST on Monday, December 3, 2007

By Peter B. Lord

Providence Journal Environment Writer

NARRAGANSETT — The battle over menhaden in Narragansett Bay may have come to an end. At least for the time being.

Scientists, fishermen, policy makers and politicians gathered in Narragansett on Friday to address a feud between recreational and commercial fishermen over menhaden, or pogies, the herring-like fish that swarm into Narragansett Bay in schools of varying size each summer. Recreational fishermen this year petitioned the state to ban a commercial purse seine boat from the Bay because they say it takes too many fish. Lobstermen insisted the boat is their last source of reasonably priced bait, and its catch is insignificant to overall menhaden stocks.

At least three things happened when the groups spent a day together:
The political leaders made it clear they would not intervene. State Sen. Susan Sosnowski, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture, said she would rely on state regulators to resolve the problem. State Rep. Jan Malik, chairman of the House Committee on the Environment, agreed, saying, “I hope we can work on this issue not just for one side or the other, but for the state of Rhode Island.”
Stephen J. Medeiros, president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, a recreational fishing group, walked away happy.

“For years we were asking for a meeting like this. We wanted better science. We wanted observers on the bait boat. Nothing ever happened. So we used a sledgehammer [proposed legislation banning the bait boat] and all of a sudden things are happening.” Minutes later, Russ Wallis, one of the most outspoken lobstermen, who feared a bait-boat ban would put him out of business, said he too wished the meeting had happened long ago. “I personally thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said Wallis.

W. Michael Sullivan, director of the state Department of Environmental Management, said he believed the meeting was the beginning of a new regulatory era that will be more flexible, while remaining scientifically principled.
The conference was organized by Rhode Island Sea Grant and the DEM in an effort to address disputes surrounding legislation sought by the recreational fishermen to close the Bay to the one purse seine boat operated by Ark Bait Co. that catches menhaden for sale to lobstermen and others.

The idea was for scientists to present facts about the fish, and then have a discussion.
The recreational fishermen were convinced that overfishing the menhaden reduced the fishes’ ability to filter pollutants from Bay waters and their abundance as food for game fish such as stripers and blue fish. Lobstermen said their costs would soar if they lost the use of menhaden as bait. The owners of the bait boat said the ban would kill their 30-year-old business. The General Assembly did not act in its last session, but the DEM did impose some catch restrictions and launched an aggressive effort to monitor fishing and track catches in real time. It put observers on the Ark Bait Co. boat and in the spotter plane the company used to find schools of fish.

Mark Gibson, a DEM fisheries manager, said it took a lot of time and effort to monitor and regulate the menhaden population in Narragansett Bay last summer. It surged upward and attracted out of state bait boats as well. He said he worried about trying to continue improving fisheries management at a time of state budget crisis.
The DEM estimated 12.4 million pounds of menhaden were in the Bay last summer and it set a catch limit of 50 percent of that total. The bait boats did not reach that limit, but DEM would have shut down the fishery if they had, Gibson said.

Most of the fish in the Bay were large and healthy, Gibson said. But the schools that delighted people in Providence by staying in the city’s rivers well into the fall were not healthy, Gibson said. Fish sampled from those schools lost so much weight scientists believe they were starving. Dave Beutel, a Sea Grant fisheries expert, said historical records show that 100 years ago Rhode Island was one of the country’s hot spots for menhaden fishing. In 1889, 112 million pounds were landed in Rhode Island.
Local populations have dropped off dramatically since then, although Beutel said there was a peak of 24 million pounds in 1974 and another of 19 million pounds in 1989, before populations dropped to very low levels.

Beutel also found that fish kills are not just a modern problem. He learned of one a century ago that was much worse than the Greenwich Bay fish kill of three years ago. Fish died all over the Bay, he said, in such numbers that their carcasses littered South County beaches. Ted Durbin, a scientist at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, said the role of menhaden in filtering plankton from the Bay is more complicated than many people realize.

By filter-feeding, menhaden reduce zooplankton populations, Durbin said, but such reductions allow phytoplankton to bloom. Also, he said wastes excreted by menhaden support phytoplankton growth. Nitrogen levels in the Bay are reduced when menhaden are harvested or migrate away. But Durbin said the effect is so small that you could not control nitrogen levels in the Bay by controlling menhaden.
Menhaden that migrate along the East Coast are not overfished, according to Brad Spear, who coordinates menhaden management plans for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Menhaden populations have been improving since the 1960s and 1970s, he said, as states banned reduction fishing — catching menhaden to process them into oil and food.

Only one fish processing plant remains, Spear said. The plant in Virginia processed 157,000 tons of menhaden in 2006. The total East Coast catch for bait was 26,000 tons in 2006 and Rhode Island accounted for a very small portion of that catch, maybe 5,000 to 6,000 tons. During the last two years, fishermen and scientists have seen menhaden populations increasing, Spear said. Several scientists said 2005 was a big year for juvenile menhaden so stocks may well go higher next year as they migrate north again. Near the end of the day, Richard Hittinger, a recreational fisherman, said his interests were the same as the commercial fishermen. “We all want clean water and an abundance of fish.”

Lanny Dellinger, president of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, agreed. “I’d rather work with you to improve the Bay’s health and make more fish for everybody.”
plord@projo.com (plord@projo.com)

12-03-2007, 10:00 AM
Nice article that tries to present the facts ad doesn't devolve into an us vs. them rant. Although I would have preferred a ban or big reduction, I can live with monitoring and a quota, especially since the numbers seem to be on the upswing.

Thanks for posting,


12-03-2007, 01:16 PM
it is nice to see two sides sit down and listen to eachothers concerns. i also liked the fact that the commerical fisherman were not put in such a negative light, as is usually the case in articles like this.

the resource is there for all to use. hopefully, the steps taken will advance the knowledge of how to best preserve future populations of all fish stocks.

12-03-2007, 02:56 PM
By filter-feeding, menhaden reduce zooplankton populations, Durbin said, but such reductions allow phytoplankton to bloom.
Menhaden that migrate along the East Coast are not overfished, according to Brad Spear, who coordinates menhaden management plans for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Good article, and it's great to finally see such an important species getting a little attention.

The two sentences I quoted above stuck out to me though - the first, stating that menhaden feed on zooplankton and not phytoplankton is, as far as I know, correct but incomplete. Juvenile menhaden feed on zooplankton, but adult menhaden feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton (plus the odd diatom). This means that adult menhaden, if we allowed any to grow to that size, could help combat the algae blooms and resulting dead zones that come with an overabundance of phytoplankton.

The second sentence is technically true, but it uses a very specific definition of overfishing. In this context overfishing simply means that there are enough fish out there for the industries that depend on them to still make a profit. If you look at historical numbers, it's hard to claim with a straight face that menhaden aren't severly depleted, and that the fishing pressure isn't keeping the population from rebounding, which is the scenario that springs to my mind when I hear "overfished".

If any of this stuff interests you, pick up a copy of The Most Important Fish in the Sea. It's a great read that goes into a lot more detail on the history of menhaden in the US, from the pilgrims to Omega Protein.


12-03-2007, 07:39 PM
Good stuff.