Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Menhaden in the Bay


For the past 4 weeks, the staff of Save The Bay has been treated to the sight of massive schools of adult menhaden in the Providence River in front of the Bay Center. Called "The most important fish in the sea" Atlantic menhaden are a key fish species in Narragansett Bay as they provide forage for sportfish and also remove lots of plankton through filter-feeding.

Unlike river herring, menhaden spend their entire lives in salt water. Known to spawn above the continental shelf hundreds of miles offshore, they also lay eggs in estuaries. Eggs, larvae, and juveniles (called 'peanut bunker') are common in the Bay. Historically, large adult menhaden (>12") were also common in the Bay, but have declined since the mid-1970's and had not been regularly observed in big schools until 2005, when a large school of adults appeared again in the Providence River.

Stock assessments from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and estimates from the RIDEM suggest that the species is not overfished, and that a viable, sustainable coastal stock remains. Unlike the Chesapeake states and Gulf states, Rhode Island does not practice "reduction" harvesting and only allows commercial seining of the species for bait purposes. Reduction refers to the process of processing the fish to remove their oil and turn the protein into fish meal for fertilizer or animal feed, and has been implicated as a major factor in stock declines in menhaden and other dependent species in those areas where it is practiced.

The commercial seining of menhaden in Narragansett Bay for bait is controversial. Many recreational fishermen object to the presence of the large seine boats all the way up into the city of Providence, scattering if not decimating the schools and ruining the fishing. Many recreational fishers also object to the sight of bycatch such as striped bass and bluefish in the seine nets. Some commercial fishermen, some lobstermen, and the management agencies claim that there is no Bay-dependent stock, that they are not being overfished, and that the seiners support recreational fishing through bait shops.

Whether these seine boats are significantly depleting the Bay's populations is a matter of debate, but it seems reasonable that we should draw a line somewhere to limit the scope of the commercial netting even if just to protect the recreational fishery. My opinion is that the seiners are overfishing the Bay's stocks already. Drawing a line from the Conimicut light to the Nayatt light and prohibiting commercial seining north of that line would be a great start toward conservation and effective management.

It is probably too late to pass legislation in this year's General Assembly establishing real conservation zones, but it's something we should strongly consider for next year. It's wonderful to have these big "pogies" back in the River and we'd like to see them year after year. -JT




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