It’s time for a menhaden showdown.
Tomorrow the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board meets in Baltimore to make a decision on an amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for menhaden. The decisions made tomorrow could substantially impact not just the menhaden fishery, but the health of the entire Atlantic, which is, frankly, desperately in need of something good right now.
If you’ve spent any time in the fisheries world at all, you probably know the basics about menhaden: small oily forage fish, most humans find it kind of gross, but fish, seabirds and other marine critters love it. We two legged critters mostly grind it up into fish oil, fish meal and fertilizer, or use it as bait.
Like many issues in fisheries though, it gets much more complicated when you dig into the management issues. And menhaden has a very long history of complicated management to keep track of. Alison Fairbrother of the Public Trust Project has gone where few journalists have gone before and actually paid very close, regular attention to both the workings of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and Omega Protein, the company that profits from menhaden to the extent that they have spent years trying to influence its management. This project has resulted in some really fascinating articles on the politicization of science in the management of the fishery, as well as this handy Atlantic menhaden management timeline that succinctly lays out the management of menhaden over the years, starting in 1981 when the Commission first took charge of what I would guess to be their most headache inducing fish. The timeline is a fascinating retrospective of what I would bill an agency very reluctant to take proactive management measures to save a fish that mattered to a lot of people. The fact that they finally did was thanks to the hard work of vocal anglers and community activists up and down the Atlantic coast.
Of course not everyone sees this as a good thing. Omega Protein, the company that reaps significant private gain from this poorly managed public fishery has lobbied tirelessly against additional restraints on fishing menhaden. In the lead up to tomorrow’s decision they have made efforts to characterize the issue not as one of private profit, but of jobs and culture. Their argument as I read it boils down to ‘we should be able to keep exploiting menhaden because we’ve always done so and the culture of our coast is based on it’ and ‘we employ a lot of people’.
Regular readers of this blog will know that we here at FishHQ firmly believe that the management of fisheries is indeed a social question, and impacts of management decisions on fishing families and coastal communities should very much be considered before making them. Tradition is a strong force, and there’s no doubt that Reedville, Virginia where the only menhaden processing plant left on the East Coast is located, has a complicated history with the fishery. But that is not, in and of itself, a good reason to allow for unsustainable fishing of menhaden. In fact, I’d call it rather ironic that the company wants to rest on the laurels of a fishing tradition while consistently undermining the very ecosystem that supports that fishery by sucking massive amounts of fish out of it every year to be reduced into industrial products, many of which are shipped overseas, far from the nutrient base that created them.
With the Commission considering cuts of as much as 50% of the annual harvest, Omega Protein has attempted to make this seem like an issue of job loss— that public sore spot so salient that scores of issues that have nothing to do with jobs suddenly become “a jobs question”. Unfortunately for the beleaguered Omega Protein, painting this as a jobs question raises questions about these supposedly sacrosanct jobs. The Public Trust Project’s Alison Fairbrother points to information that suggests that good quality jobs are perhaps no more at the top of Omega Protein’s agenda than is basing their business off of truly science based management though. In spite of support from the local union for Omega Protein on this issue, the article raises some important questions about the jobs Omega Protein is offering, and some practices they employ. Her article is worth reading in full.
This is not to say that those employed by Omega Protein would not potentially weather hardship in the case that cuts are made; they very well might, and we should acknowledge that, and feel empathy for them. Job loss is scary, especially in these uncertain economic times, and I don’t wish it on anybody. However, while those employees may experience pain that we do not wish upon them, the responsibility for this is does not fall upon the Commission, whose role it is to manage a public fishery for sustainable use for all the coasts’ peoples, or the advocates who are speaking up for a fishery management approach that doesn’t unhinge the very ecosystems upon which so many of them depend.
The choice to build a company beholden to private shareholders upon a public resource was Omega Protein’s, and regardless of how many hardships this choice may now be revealed to cause, they have no more right to exploit this resource than anyone else.
Because among all the rhetoric of jobs and community, if you listen hard enough, they will own up to their true interest: said Omega Protein spokesperson Ben Landry in the Daily Press, “We have shareholders and our duty is to maximize the resources that they’ve provided us.”
Finally, some straight talk. This is what their record bears out too—they are in this for the profit, as a private shareholder-beholden company, and any other moral standing they try to throw into the path of good management should be taken not as “the main issue” but as the distraction that it is.
It’s been a long fight for rules that will hopefully lead to sound management of Atlantic menhaden, and tomorrow’s showdown should be worth the wait. The Commission is meeting at Best Western Plus Hotel and Conference Center, Chesapeake Room, 5625 O’Donnell Street, Baltimore, Maryland starting at 8:30 a.m. and menhaden is slotted to take up most of the day’s agenda, which you can review here. If you’re in the area, I highly encourage you to attend; word on the street is that there will be a sizeable turnout. If you can’t make it but want to follow along, you can tune in via webinar.
New to menhaden but want to get caught up fast? If you’re looking for a basic primer, here are a few:
For a just the facts ma’am approach, check out the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation’s menhaden fact sheet.
For an advocacy perspective, Menhaden Defenders is the coalition leading the charge.
For a thorough look at the politics of menhaden science and management, The Public Trust Project has a number of articles worth reading, including the above mentioned menhaden timeline.
If you’re a really fast reader and want to seriously dig in, Bruce Franklin’s The Most Important Fish in the Sea is well worth the read.