By Matthew Yoder
Historically, Atlantic striped bass and menhaden are species existing in a predatory/prey relationship in the Chesapeake Bay. At next week’s meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in New Hampshire, their futures will be hotly discussed, signaling ramifications for anglers in our area.
Created in the 1940s to foster a more cooperative approach to fisheries regulation on the eastern seaboard, the ASMFC meets quarterly to discuss the current state of marine populations. Emboldened by the passage of the 1993 Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, ASMFC is a governing body made up of both elected and appointed officials in 15 states, as well as a team of scientists who serve to formulate the basis for their discussions.
“The science provides the basis for our management actions,” said ASMFC Director of Communications Tina Berger. With so many groups seeking a stake in the management of both the menhaden and striped bass, results of the science depend heavily on who you talk with, and fill only one piece of a complicated regulatory puzzle.
Menhaden is the only fish regulated by the Virginia General Assembly, and it seems as with everything else, the politicized status of control is increasingly more up for grabs. Some in the Assembly see the Assembly as the place to maintain a steadier, evenhanded debate, as opposed to turning matters over to what is seen as more politically charged organizations, such as the ASMFC and the Virginia Marine Resource Commission.
The state delegate for the Eastern Shore, Rob Bloxom, looks at the agenda of these organizations, particularly the ASMFC, as severing the sovereignty of Virginia to make localized decisions. “It’s a group of coastal states voting against each other to see who can get quotas, and we’re stuck in the migratory middle,” said Bloxom. “The first day science is presented, the second day is 100% political, and I’m saying the fish are here, everything is cyclical.” Bryan Plumlee, an attorney and Gov. Northam’s appointee to the ASMFC, shared an entirely different opinion.
“Menhaden should be regulated by the VMRC,” said Plumlee. “While I believe the legislature is qualified to make regulatory decisions, I do not think the legislative process is well suited to act quickly to resolve problems with any fishery.”
Sharing his opinion and going a bit further is Stephen Atkinson, board director for the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “Our organization strongly believes menhaden should be regulated by VMRC,” said Atkinson. “The assembly has no expertise, no time, no interest in making changes and it’s past time for change.”
Along with the Eastern Shore of Virginia Anglers Club, Atkinson posed the question of regulation to the local candidates seeking election, and their results can be accessed at www.esanglersclub.org.
Atkinson believes a primary culprit making these issues current is Canadian-owned Omega Protein, citing the company as exceeding the quota established by the ASMFC. But because of Virginia’s failure to pass a quota law, the company was not technically in violation.
Nonetheless, Atkinson believes Omega Protein’s disregard is reckless for the bay, and subsequently the striped bass, which rely heavily on the prevalence of menhaden. Omega Protein was contacted for this story but did not respond with a statement.
“A foreign company is damaging the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay. Striped bass depend on menhaden for forage; if the menhaden aren’t there what will the striped bass do?” asked Atkinson. Admitting to challenges ahead for tournaments and charter boats, Plumlee said the issue of striped bass populations is of urgent concern.
“Some commercial fishermen are reporting to me that Atlantic striped bass are rebounding, but the scientific surveys are not supportive of the position,” Plumlee said.
“The coming meeting is of great import. Right now I lean towards the VMRC regulation because if allowed by ASMFC, it gives our agency a more direct impact,” said Plumlee.
Herein lies with the problem with concerned commercial fishermen. Jim Dawson, who has spent over 30 years fishing the waters of the bay and Atlantic Ocean, believes these committees have already made up their minds and are not working in the interests of fishermen.
“With striped bass, Maryland went over 300%, Virginia was under quota, and now they want to take 18% of the striped bass away from Virginia who did nothing wrong from a recreational standpoint or commercial,” Dawson said.
The meetings, he said, are just a formality to tighten the hold on private fishermen trying to make a living.
“They have their minds made up, like when it goes to a public hearing they already have the law written; they know what they’re gonna do. I can prove everything I’m saying and use their documents to do it,” Dawson said.
At issue is what Dawson says is the committee’s complete disregard for the Magnuson Stevens Act, a federal law that is supposed to look out for the economic interests of fishermen in this country.
“We haven’t found one market or one fisherman studied for economic impacts outlined by the Magnuson Act,” said Dawson.
Berger invokes science more in her statements. “The science is weighed against the socio-economic factors of fishing,” said Berger. “Things are shifting in the water, rising temperatures, stock productivity, it’s not an easy time to be a commercial fisherman,” Berger said.
Dawson, who fishes the entire year, agrees it’s not an easy time to make a living on the water but believes the unreceptive bureaucracy is a strong contributing force.
“I wish I had a right to vote on their income and what they do. We’re trying to give you a good meal, and we’re looked at like criminals,” said Dawson.
He decries the qualifications of people deciding the fate of his livelihood. “You should have to work on the water before you make a decision on what that person is doing and what impact it has,” Dawson said.
The ASMFC cites the hard work of their scientists, however, and outlines such work in ASMFC’s current five-year plan. The commission is looking to provide sound, actionable science through new innovative research techniques, methodology, and statistics.
“We have really qualified individuals to provide sound information and advice. Virginia is no exception,” said Berger.
Berger mentions work conducted through surveys, meetings with fishermen, stock assessment models, and individuals dedicating a lot of time to crunching numbers.
Dawson has a decidedly different take on what is occurring in real time. “They have a stock assessment for every species. They do a random trawl survey over open bottom. They base our whole thing on a random trawl survey,” Dawson said.
And paperwork has been a way of life for him and his wife, Katie, for a large part of their careers.
“We have a vessel trip report that we fill out and if we don’t fill that out, they’ll take our permits,” said Dawson. “Do they use that? No. Why not? We have over 25 years of data. I said I want it to be 25% of the stock assessment. I sent a letter; no response,” said Dawson.
Katie Dawson went one step further.
“I offered to bring them on the boat, but there’s a huge disconnect between management and fishermen. It falls on a deaf ear,” she said. “They don’t even know what they’re talking about. Some of these guys passing rules and regulations do not even know what any of these fish are, what they look like.”
Though their opinions differ, it seems as though all sides agree that mobilization and participation will strengthen their aims. “If the people want something done they need to contact state representatives,” said Atkinson.
“By not passing the ASMFC lower bay cap and not moving regulatory authority to the VMRC, the General Assembly has failed the Chesapeake Bay, failed thousands of anglers, and failed people that make a living off of our striped bass fishery,” Atkinson said.
Berger’s extensive organization will pull together the guiding principle of sustainable, cooperative management of fisheries that created the ASMFC in the first place. ASMFC outlines “no state, by itself, can effectively protect the interests of its citizens,” a battle cry to another time.
“The primary focus is to manage interstate fisheries. Something will happen with striped bass in October and the discussion will be lively and interesting,” Berger said.
Dawson just remains focused, steadfast, and will always continue to innovate. “I try to politically do it the right way. I try to adapt, but until the fishermen get together and unite strong, they get us to fight in between,” said Dawson. “There’s about 30-35 species on the endangered list; they’ve been there ever since they’ve been in management. My thing is if you were managing, you wouldn’t have these issues.”
Bloxom feels another species is worthy of the list. “I think the commercial waterman are the most endangered species in the bay,” said Bloxom.