ASMFC stock assessment concludes menhaden not overfished

August 12, 2022
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Menhaden

Pictured: Menhaden, or bunker, are an ecologically important feeder fish. Courtesy of Saving Seafood.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s 2022 stock assessment of the controversial menhaden fishery concluded the small oily fish is not being overharvested.

According to an article in the Bay Journal, the updated menhaden population assessment takes into account the ecological role of the species as a popular food for other fish, which is a different methodology from previous stock assessments.

The article states “The latest assessment, presented to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Aug. 3, incorporates data collected through last year. It concluded that “overfishing is not occurring, and the stock is not considered overfished.”

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Omega Protein, an international corporation whose headquarters are Reedville, Virginia, is responsible for the harvesting of approximately 70% of the overall Atlantic Coast menhaden catch. Most of their harvesting happens in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Atlantic Ocean off Virginia’s coast.

Omega develops, produces, and delivers essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, dairy and botanical proteins, and antioxidant rich nutraceuticals to supplement and food manufacturers. Products which use Omega’s fish oil include fish oil supplements, fish meal and fertilizers.

The rest of the menhaden harvesting is done by smaller commercial operations which use the feeder fish for bait.

Omega’s operations frequently draw criticism from recreational fishermen and conservation groups. Two recent fish kills created an uproar in Northampton County.

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“Using these stricter standards that incorporate the forage needs of predators, the new assessment has found that the menhaden fishery is sustainable, and that menhaden fishing does not negatively affect predator populations,” the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, a group representing commercial harvesters, said in a statement.

The findings did not sway Omega’s detractors.

The Bay Journal article continues: ““We have reason to believe there is localized depletion in the Bay,” said Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, one of the groups participating in a petition to limit Omega’s operations in the bay.”

Omega spokesman Ben Landry said he wasn’t surprised that “special interest groups are blaming the company for all of their self-created woes.” Landry noted that the ASMFC’s striped bass assessments have blamed overharvest, particularly by recreational anglers, for the decline of rockfish.

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“The reason for the decline in striped bass numbers is not a lack of available menhaden in the species’ diet,” Landry said. “Instead the culprit is right in front of our faces: recreational anglers have removed too many stripers and now the species is having trouble recovering.” 

The full report in the Bay Journal can be read here.

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