Little Fish, Big Help

A lot of little fish just had a big week.

During the first week of August, fish that don’t typically get the lavish attention enjoyed by more charismatic megafauna finally got some recognition that might keep them from disappearing.

The NRDC is spearheading an effort to get river herring (shorthand here for blueback herring and alewife) listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, while the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) showed overwhelming support for new efforts to protect and rebuild the decimated menhaden stock.

The chances that you've ordered any of these fish off a menu are slim at best, but chances are very good that they've snuck their way into your life in myriad other ways.  While river herring had their commercial heydays up until the 1970s, they are more likely to be caught now as bait for your lobster dinner or inadvertently scooped up by fishermen seeking out squid, AKA calamari, or by factory trawlers seeking Atlantic herring, the “herring” you usually find in cans on supermarket shelves.  As for menhaden, in the 18th century they had their culinary fans, but these days you're far more likely to eat something else that has eaten menhaden whole in the wild, like striped bass, tuna and bluefish, or  ground-up as fishmeal, like chickens, pigs or farmed salmon. Or perhaps you take a fish oil supplement made with menhaden or walk on linoleum floors made with the fish.

For fish you don’t think of much, they're ubiquitous little guys.

So why the need for protection?  In both cases, the stock has been decimated, especially over the past half century.  Massive numbers of river herring once swam up rivers all along the Atlantic coast to spawn, but after centuries of overfishing, dam construction, water pollution and rising water temperatures, landings of the once-abundant fish have plummeted 98 percent since the mid-20th century.

The menhaden story is a bit more…political.  While menhaden has had some recent moments in the media sun since being bestowed with the title "most important fish in the sea,"  for a long time the oily fish was seen as little more than fertilizer for crops or food for other animals that we'd rather eat.  Since the late 1800’s, menhaden has been a commodity, not wildlife, valued more as an ingredient for gear lubricant and lipstick than for its crucial role as water filterer and food for bigger Atlantic and Gulf coast fish.  As a result of factory-scale overfishing, the menhaden stock is at its lowest point in recorded history.

Now there is just one company left responsible for catching nearly all menhaden: Omega Protein.  So notorious is the company in the fishery management world that every Atlantic state, except Virginia, has banned the company’s ten or so industrial fishing trawlers from their coastal waters (North Carolina allows some limited access).

Ah, but Virginia has its reasons.  First, Omega Protein’s only Atlantic coast menhaden processing plant is in…Virginia. And the only state where the legislature, not fisheries scientists, regulates menhaden is …Virginia.  So when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted on August 2nd at its meeting in Virginia (Perfect!) to publicly release a plan that would reduce the menhaden harvest, the only "no" vote was from…Virginia.

I'm sure the fact that Omega Protein has donated over $55,000 to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, given another $106,000 to Virginia state legislators,  $53,000 to the state’s federal representatives and spent nearly $3 million on lobbyists is purely coincidental.

Regardless of influence peddling, would these proposed new protections really work?  Yes, and potentially in a big way.

The ASMFC provided five options for menhaden management, ranging from the status quo (read: keep on overfishin'!) to reductions in catch by up to 45 percent by restricting certain kinds of gear or closing particular areas to fishing. The strictest harvest limits could finally give menhaden the break from industrial fishing they so badly need.  (The draft plan – elegantly titled "Draft Addendum 5" – will be released for public comment soon, and public hearings will be scheduled up and down the East Coast.)

As for river herring, listing the unheralded fish along with the likes of grizzly bears, American crocodiles, Chinook salmon and other threatened iconic species would mean that not only would alewives and bluebacks get a little boost in the public eye, but they'd finally get a recovery plan in place.  Right now, river herring are listed as "Species of Concern" by the National Marine Fisheries Service; a nice but not very powerful distinction.  But by seeing the fish’s “concern” title and raising it to "threatened," strategies like habitat protection, dam removal, fish ladders, reductions in excess nutrients in rivers, and maybe even reductions in bycatch would all finally be in play, with federal law backing them up.

None of these small fish species – menhaden, alewives and blueback herring – have the widespread appeal of your average humpback whale or giant panda, but they do happen to sit near the bottom of the food chain.  So when their numbers plummet to the point of collapse, it’s time to step up and give those oily little guys a helping hand.  Adorable or not, we depend on them more than we realize.

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