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Menhaden muddle, part 4.

[This is the fourth part of a five-part series on the issue of menhaden depletion by Charles Hutchinson; here are parts one, two, and three. For more background information, check out The Most Important Fish in the Sea. --Ed.] The role of the Federal Government in menhaden regulation is harder to fathom. When Congress created the ASMFC some decisions had to be made as to who would regulate what. If the fish were characterized as inshore the ASMFC was given regulatory responsibility. If the species was offshore the responsibility remained with the Feds. Menhaden are primarily an inshore species, but do travel and reside in Federal waters as well. The dividing line for jurisdictional purposes is the 3 mile limit. From 3 miles offshore to 200 miles is the EEZ which is under Federal control. Beyond 200 miles they are International Waters which is another nightmare entirely. For our purposes the waters up to the 3 mile limit are of primary concern and the “ States Rights” issue tends to keep the Feds out of it. Menhaden are not regulated in any fashion in the EEZ. Records show that increasingly the reduction industry (Omega) is finding fishing in the EEZ more profitable and less restrictive. Now more than 50% of the harvest is offshore. That has created some interesting effects. Much of the catch is off the New Jersey coast resulting recently in increased concern by New Jersey residents by what is occurring in their waters as Omega efficiently reduces the menhaden abundance in their area. As the fishing pressure increases offshore, some of the migratory habits of the menhaden are changing. Most notable is the absence of menhaden off the coast of North Carolina in the winter months and an increase in the Chesapeake Bay. Notable also is the absence of stripers in NC since bait is harder to find and an increase in large migratory stripers in the Chesapeake Bay. There are reports of decreasing catches of stripers in the northeast, particularly in Maine and Massachusetts. All of these conditions are good indicators that the availability of menhaden to support predators is becoming a problem over a wide area. It is a fact that Federal legislation can override state regulations as demonstrated by the newly reauthorized Stevens Magnuson Act which has provisions for rebuilding stocks classified as overfished that states find onerous. It is also a fact that the Feds could at any time prohibit the harvesting of menhaden in Federal Waters but have shown little desire to do so. Part of this reluctance is the recognition that to do so would probably result in an uproar from the State of Virginia and more directly from Omega. Omega would claim such an action would put the Reedville operation out of business. If such a regulation were applied to Federal waters, and if the ASMFC had not taken any measures to restrict harvesting in VA waters, then Omega could harvest the Bay without restriction Con centrating all of Omega’s catch in Virginia would be devastating to the Bay’s ecology. Legislation to halt the harvest of menhaden was introduced in 2008 in the House by representatives Saxton(NJ) and Gilchrest(MD) and got a sparsely attended hearing by the subcommittee on fisheries. It died there. Similarly a 2009 bill in the Senate by Cardin(MD) for improving restoration of Chesapeake Bay water quality contained a provision for eliminating the commercial fishing for menhaden in the Bay which died before it was introduced. Unmentioned was the opposition from VA which had much to do with its removal. Basically its a catch 22 problem. The Feds have delegated responsibility to the ASMFC and wish to avoid the States Rights issues that might arise by enacting legislation to override ASMFC. There are also jurisdictional issues at play here but in reality it is more of the political baloney that seems to be overwhelming in Washington. The power to do what is needed is there but the political will to do so is not.