MENHADEN PROJECT UPDATE
by Len Fantasia & Greg Hall
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association February 1998 Newsletter)
The Menhaden Project is alive and well, but it appears that we cannot say the same for the health of the Menhaden stocks along the Atlantic Coast. The past year has been both rewarding and frustrating, and it appears that we are in for a long, hard struggle if we are going to assure an equitable share of the Menhaden resource for the recreational community. The support from the recreational community has been overwhelming, and wed like to thank the thousands of anglers who have signed the Menhaden Project petitions in support of our efforts, as well as thank the JCAA, the RFA, and the Fisherman Magazine for all of their support. On the other hand, our attempts to negotiate some equitable compromise with the reduction and New Jersey bait fishery has led to nothing but frustration and denial on their part that there is any conflict or the need for them to change their pressure on the in-shore bait resource in any way. We want to assure you all that we are not going away, and that we are making modifications in our approach and proposal, which we feel will overcome some of the resistance and barriers which stalled our first attempt.
The situation that we in New Jersey face, in seeking changes in the Menhaden fishery, is unique in some ways, since we have what is regarded as an historical bait fishery for Menhaden. It requires that we attempt to come up with a solution which provides for an equitable use of the resource for both sectors within the State, the bait and recreational fishery. To preserve the bait fishery, we must allow for the netting of bunker in State waters. However, based on Constitutional law, we have learned that we cannot provide for the purse seining of bunker for bait but not for reduction; therein lies our dilemma. We have, however, learned that there are other approaches to this, and it focuses on the types of gear allowed for the harvesting of bunker in our State waters. We can control the type of gear used but not the ultimate use of the resource. In addition to gear restrictions, we will be proposing limitations to the numbers of boats allowed in the Menhaden bait fishery, as well as restrictions in the allowable harvest levels of Menhaden. This past years report from the Atlantic Coast Marine Fisheries Council on Menhaden clearly shows a decline below the trigger points for year-old bunker in the commercial catch, both for 1996 as well as the past three-year average. In addition, they cite a relatively high proportion of adults in the catch. As usual, they chose to ignore these findings, and recommended no restriction in the bunker fishery. What is amazing about the report is that it also concludes there will be growing and continued pressure on Menhaden as a bait resource. We clearly have a fishery where recruitment of young bunker into the biomass is declining, the catch of mature breeding size fish is increasing, and the biomass is expected to be placed under accelerated harvesting pressure. Despite their own conclusion that bait fishery will continue to put increased pressure on bunker as a resource, they have recommended a new allotment to Maine which they define as an area which has, historically, had a substantial impact on breeding-size fish.
The new restrictions put on bunker harvesting in Connecticut and New York Long Island Sound, as well as the closure of purse seining for bunker in the Chesapeake, will only lead to increased pressure in New Jersey waters.
Studies which have recently been made public on the health of the Striper stocks in the Chesapeake Bay, and the impact of purse seining for bunker in that area, provide critical support for our position that the purse seining for bunker in the nursery areas of Sandy Hook and Raritan Bays can have a negative impact on the health of the Striper stocks. The main reason for the closure of the Chesapeake to purse seining is the fact that the pressure that has been placed on forage species in the bay, both bunker and herring, along with a plankton bloom, are leading to the starvation of the striped bass stocks which we have all worked so hard to preserve. Studies conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have confirmed what we, as fisherman, have always known: that the predator fish, striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish are dependent upon the viability of the forage fish population. The commercial industry continues to cite the increases in the numbers of striped bass caught as evidence that their pressure on the Menhaden Fishery has no impact on the viability of the bass fishery. What they fail to acknowledge is the fact that the majority of these fish are shorts. These bass will never reach their full potential or maturity due to an inadequate food source, and those that do will certainly not frequent the in-shore waters important to the angling community due to the lack of adequate forage fish. It is clear that the pressure placed on the Menhaden resource in our in-shore waters has reduced that population to the point where, if challenged with any type of natural phenomena, bad weather or disease as has occurred in the Chesapeake, it will be devastating to both the bunker and the juvenile predator fish. The statistics for last year on the catch for Menhaden in the Raritan and Sandy Hook Bay areas, as well as the Northern shore of New Jersey, has shown over a 100% increase with an historical increase going back to 1989, of over 1000%. If we do not continue the fight, they will destroy their own fishery, as well as the recreational opportunity in New Jersey.
We look forward to your continued support in the future, and we promise to continue the fight.