Author's Connection to the Sustainable Management of Atlantic Menhaden is Factually Inaccurate and Hyperbolic

WASHINGTON (Saving Seafood) — March 24, 2014 — A recent article on activist news website TakePart, "Yes, Shrimp Gelatin Is a Real Thing, and It Could Save a Lot of These Tiny Fish," by Alison Fairbrother of the Public Trust Project, discusses an innovative study by a Louisiana State University researcher that recycles unused shrimp to make artificial crab bait. However, soon after introducing the research, the story's focus shifts away from the gelatin to criticisms of the management of the fish species menhaden, which is sometimes used as crab bait in Louisiana. Gelatin bait alternatives in the Gulf of Mexico may yield environmental and economic advantages by potentially reducing waste, cutting shipping costs and emissions, and providing a less expensive bait option. But the article's leading assumption that this new research will have an impact on Atlantic menhaden management is hyperbolic and misleading. In addition, the Atlantic menhaden stock is not overfished and is being harvested at a level considered sustainable.

Menhaden bait replacements in the Gulf will likely have no effect on the sustainability or management of Atlantic menhaden. Approximately 24 percent of harvested Atlantic menhaden is netted for bait, and the majority of that remains on the East Coast for use in New England lobster traps and crab pots in Mid-Atlantic waters. The Atlantic menhaden fishery operates under a quota system that already strictly limits the amount of fish that can be harvested.

Bait alternatives are largely being studied to cut down on fishing costs for Gulf crabbers. Two years ago, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) established an historically strict quota for commercial menhaden harvests. Fisheries managers approved these controversial harvest cuts to ensure that the commercial menhaden fishery continues to operate at sustainable levels. However, the reduced harvests have driven up the price of menhaden as bait. So, while shrimp gelatin might reduce operating costs for fishermen in the Gulf, it is irrelevant to menhaden management, and certainly won't further "save" any menhaden beyond the fishery's current and already-strict harvest cuts.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the regulatory body overseeing the management of U.S. fisheries, has repeatedly found that the health of the Atlantic menhaden stock is unrelated to fishing pressure. NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office website states, "menhaden recruitment appears to be independent of fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass, indicating environmental factors may be the defining factor in the production of good year classes."

Fishery scientists have compiled over 60 years of menhaden population data, which show fluctuating levels of high and low populations that are likely unrelated to fishing pressure. Extensive research by Dr. Bob Wood, Director of NOAA's Oxford Cooperative Laboratory in Maryland, shows that Atlantic temperature cycles may be the leading influence on the varying population sizes of menhaden.

Despite this research, some environmental organizations allege that menhaden are at "an historic low." This assertion is recirculated in the TakePart article, and similar language has been used by The Pew Environment Group, which promulgated the claim that menhaden numbers have "plummeted by 90 percent" in recent years. But when viewed in context of all of the available menhaden population data, these arguments prove deceptive. While menhaden populations are experiencing a cyclical low period, these levels are comparable to populations recorded in the 1960s. Pulitzer Prize winning fact-checking organization PolitiFact investigated Pew's statistic and found that assertion to be "mostly false," concluding that Pew cherry-picked data points that didn't accurately account for the species' historical fluctuations in population size.

The TakePart article also references a controversial statistic from a study by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. The report claims that the economic value of leaving "forage fish" (a disputed term that includes a number of small fish with a similar ecological role to menhaden) in the ocean is double the economic value of harvesting these species. Saving Seafood has examined these claims in detail — you can read the analysis here. The statistic is based on the assumption that all of these species will react the same way to management changes. In fact, known and observable behavioral differences distinguish the individual species united under the umbrella term "forage fish," which indicates that this assumption is unlikely.

Ultimately, Ms. Fairbrother's article paints a bleak picture that does not accurately represent the state or management of Atlantic menhaden. The stock is not considered overfished, and the ASMFC maintains a strict quota for the fishery that considers the current conservation needs of the species under new, more sensitive reference points. All of the Atlantic menhaden being shipped to the Gulf have been fished at sustainable levels monitored closely by management experts.

Work Cited:

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, "Atlantic Menhaden: Commercial and Recreational Fisheries."

Chesapeake Quarterly, "Taking the Long View: The Fall and Rise of Stripers & a Lot of Less Famous Fish." April 2013

Louisiana State University, "Blue crab bait could improve crab, shrimp industries." February 11, 2014

NOAA Fisheries, "Menhaden Fish Facts." Chesapeake Bay Office. January 2012.

PolitiFact, "Pew Environment Group says the Atlantic menhaden population has declined by 90 percent in recent years," December 14, 2012.