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Unpacking menhaden management in Delaware

Virginia Institute of Marine Science

A regional board decided earlier this week how to move forward with managing a tiny baitfish called menhaden along the East Coast.

The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board – an arm of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission – decided to continue managing menhaden as a single species, without considering how the population affects predators in the environment and how predators affect the stock until a couple of years from now.

“The best science available that we have based on the most recent assessment and all the surveys we have going on right now is that the menhaden stock is healthy, it is not overfished,” said John Clark, an environmental program administrator for Delaware’s Division of Fish & Wildlife.

Clark represents the state as a proxy to Delaware’s Administrative Commission, Delaware Fish & Wildlife Director Dave Saveikis on the Atlantic Menhaden board. He said although many environmental groups argued for menhaden to be managed immediately by determining the amount of other species that eat it, the science does not show there are any limitations to predators’ diets at this point.

One predator that feeds on menhaden is striped bass. Clark said Delaware’s Division of Fish & Wildlife has been sampling their stomach contents every fall since 2007. They've learned striped bass prefer menhaden, but do eat other things when menhaden are not available.

“And we’ve never had a situation with the stomachs we’ve looked at that we’ve had emaciated striped bass in the fall or striped bass that were not able to find an alternate food in years when the timing was as such they were in Delaware Bay and there weren’t menhaden around,” Clark said.

He said he can remember several years where he found sand eels in striped bass’ stomachs.

“And you’d pull it out and it would look like a bowl of spaghetti in a striped bass’ stomach,” Clark said.

The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board also decided to allow for a bigger catch limit of menhaden along the East Coast — about 216,000 metric tons, an 8 percent increase from last year. Next year, Delawareans will be able to catch a state quota of more than 2 million lbs. 

“This is more than we will catch and we will most likely end up transferring most of our tack back to the commission to be used by states that will be catching it,” Clark said.

Delaware watermen tend to land about 150,000 lbs. of menhaden per year, Clark said. The quota was 50,000 lbs., but a provision in the last amendment allowed fishermen to continue to catch menhaden after the quota had been met.

Under the 2012 management plan, the state never had to ask watermen to cut back on the menhaden they caught.

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