Atlantic menhaden vs. Pacific sardine: fight fight fight

Let’s get ready to rrrrrrrumble!

This east coast, west coast battle can seem pretty evenly matched at first.  Atlantic menhaden and Pacific sardines have in the past, both been predominant species in their ecosystems.  They have both recently hit very low levels and managers are wrestling, in both cases, with how to maintain sustainable populations. And remember, both of our contestants are forage fish. That means they need to be in tip top shape: sustainable both for the fisheries that exist directly by fishing these tiny powerhouses, as well as for the predators that rely on menhaden and sardine for their survival.

Managing these fisheries is different from managing a bigger fish like cod or grouper, partly because the meaning of “sustainable” is a bit different.  These forage fish populations fluctuate with sea temperatures and other environmental variables, so managing these stocks the way you would a cod can lead to drastic declines in the fishery. A whole different strategy is needed, and management is really where our fighters make it or break it.

In the blue corner, weighing in at 659,000 metric tons, down from a high of 6 million metric tons… the Pacific sardine.  The Pacific Fishery Management Council manages Pacific sardine as a forage species–that means they leave fish in the water for predator needs.  Between 5% and 15% of the fish can be taken by the fishery in any given year.  

In the red corner, weighing in at 700,000 metric tons, down from a high of 3.5 million metric tons… the Atlantic menhaden.  The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission currently manages menhaden as a single stock with no connection to the ecosystem.  In recent years more than 30% of the available fish were being removed by the fishery, mostly by an industrial reduction fishery that turns the oily little fighters into lipstick, swine feed and fish oil.

Even with the seemingly precautionary management of Pacific sardine, there are still some who say that the Pacific Council is being too risky, endangering the sardine fishery and the marine food web. The Pacific Fishery Management Council met last week and set the sardine quota at 66,495 metric tonnes; down from last year’s quota, but not significantly.

Fishermen and fisheries managers believe that the fishery is tightly managed, but not all environmentalists agree. Oceana’s California staff fears that “history is repeating itself” and will lead to a crash the magnitude of the one that inspired John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Still, other environmentalists chose to focus on the larger move that California managers are making towards embracing ecosystem based management when it comes to forage fish. Ocean Conservancy scientist George Leonard applauded commitments by both the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the California Fish and Game Commission for signaling that they were ready to move towards more comprehensive ecosystem based management.

Whether or not the sardine management is glitch free, it is certainly better than the hands off management that Atlantic menhaden enjoys. We all like a little freedom, but the best fighters know that discipline is essential to standing a winning chance. Menhaden management is in need of some serious discipline in the form of management that adheres to the science rather than the politics. You can read our most recent post on menhaden management here, and I encourage you to get up to speed quickly. Menhaden is locked into the management fight of its life, and the more support it gets the better it’s likely to do. After being told by the public last year that management of menhaden needed to be tightened up (91,000 people weighed in during public commenting), the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will have a chance to set reasonable and precautionary limits on menhaden harvest when they meet this December.  The Council is accepting comments through this Friday (the 16th of November) and we encourage you to weigh in asking managers to do the right thing.

So, who wins this fight?  So far, in the 7th round, menhaden is getting its a$# handed to it, but we still have a chance to fix the problem.  Unfortunately, it’s not just menhaden and sardine in the ring.  We’re all there–fishermen, environmentalists, predators and prey, dependent upon fishery managers to be honest referees in order to ensure robust and vibrant fisheries in the future. It’d be even better if we could get there without any black eyes.

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