I read that word more than once in regards to the science behind Friday’s meeting of the ASMFC Menhaden Management Board in Baltimore, Maryland, where managers will be voting on a number of possible regulations on Atlantic menhaden (aka bunker, or pogies). These proposed regulations will force managers to choose a path between allowing an industrial reduction fleet (so named because they grind and boil menhaden into fertilizer, pet food and fish oil) to continue to overfish the species, and enacting strict regulations that would cut catches by up to 50%.
There will always be uncertainty when it comes to counting fish, but the status of menhaden is clearer than ever before. According to the most recent stock assessment, menhaden abundance is at historic low levels, and overfishing is occurring. Scientific uncertainty should not be used as an excuse to continue mismanaging the menhaden fishery. It’s time to begin rebuilding the fish at the base of our Atlantic coastal ecosystem.
There was nothing uncertain about the volume of public comment on this issue–more than 128,000 people flooded the commission’s inboxes with postcards and emails last month, a new record for public comment. Over 100,000 supported the strictest possible catch reductions.
There is also nothing uncertain about the breadth of the coalition that is supporting better menhaden management. The entire spectrum of recreational fishermen, along with environmentalists, bird watchers, whale watchers, and a coalition of scientists have aligned on the same side of this issue, forming a large majority seeking strong action to start rebuilding the stock.
Ask any saltwater angler in the Northeast who has been fishing for more than 25 years, and they will certainly tell you that the number of pogies or bunker in their home waters is nowhere near what it was in the past. They’ll also tell you how important these fish, both in juvenile “peanut bunker” size and full-grown adult size, are to feeding sport fish like striped bass, bluefish and bluefin tuna.
Beyond their importance in creating better fishing, menhaden play an essential role as a critical link in our coastal ecosystem, one that has earned them the title “the most important fish in the sea.” It’s tough to say how negative the effect on the entire Atlantic ecosystem will be if we don’t act to rebuild menhaden. And that uncertainty, more than any other, is reason to hope that managers do the right thing.
For an excellent overview of the menhaden issue, check out “The Oiliest Catch” by Richard Conniff.