Representatives from Maine to Florida will gather Friday in Baltimore to vote on just how far to cut back the commercial catch of Atlantic menhaden along the East Coast.
The population of menhaden has dropped 90 percent in the last 30 years, prompting the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission for the first time to consider conservation efforts.
Connecticut has three representatives to the commission: State Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, David Simpson, director of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Marine Fisheries division, and Dr. Lance Stewart of Coventry.
“The science isn’t really clear, but I think the sentiment is very strong toward trying to keep as many fish in the water for purposes of regeneration as we can,” Miner said Tuesday.
He said he’s inclined to support cutting back the harvest of menhaden by 25 percent.
The amendment the commission will vote upon Friday calls for cutting back the commercial harvest from 0 to to 50 percent. Miner said he’s unclear where the commissioners from other states stand on the issue.
Simpson, who is appointed to the commission by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said the harvesting of menhaden occurs mostly in Virginia and a little in New Jersey, so conservation efforts will fall heavily on those two states.
“Pressing Virginia to tolerate 50 percent may not be productive,” Simpson said Tuesday.
He said 25 percent seems like good start since it’s the first time the group will be setting a quota for menhaden.
Once the quota is established each state will have to work on getting their state’s regulatory body or in the case of Virginia, its legislature, to codify the measure.
Simpson said he hasn’t spoken yet with Stewart, but suspects the Connecticut delegation is in agreement on reducing the harvest by about 25 percent.
The impact on the state of Connecticut will be minimal, but the issue has generated more than 128,333 comments to the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission. Of those, more than 1,050 came from Connecticut residents.
All the interest is amazing considering it’s over a small, oily fish that people don’t eat directly.
Atlantic menhaden isn’t going to wind up on restaurant menu or dinner table. The bulk of the harvest is processed into animal feed or diet supplements. Menhaden also are a staple for larger fish, including striped bass, and are used as bait. It’s a fish that’s often eaten by larger, more prized fish.
“I do think it’s one of the building blocks in the ocean that we have to be very careful about, so that’s why I support further reduction in intake,” Miner said.
But he acknowledged that there are organizations pushing for a 50 percent reduction. Pew Environment Group is one of those groups.
Jeff Young, a communications officer for Pew Environment Group, said he doesn’t believe the science regarding the amount of menhaden in the Atlantic is questionable.
“We are encouraging them to err on the side of caution,” Young said Tuesday.
The Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission concluded that the projections associated with the stock assessment of the menhaden are uncertain, which is why it decided to offer a broad range of “potential harvest reductions and allocation scenarios” for the board to consider.
A group of scientists countered with research showing that menhaden and other “forage” fish are more valuable if left in the ocean for bigger fish to feed on than if they are harvested and ground down or boiled for use in fertilizer or feed for livestock.
Miner said he doesn’t disagree that some conservation efforts are needed, but he doesn’t want the east coast to wind up like the west coast, where it’s difficult for both commercial and recreational fishermen to find areas where they are allowed to fish.
He also wondered why Pew seems to be targeting Malloy in it’s advertising when Malloy doesn’t have a vote. He said Malloy hasn’t contacted him to find out where he stands on the issue.
Malloy does have an appointment to the board and a responsibility as a head of state to make his position on the issue known, Young said.
“The governor has been a staunch proponent and a longtime advocate for the need of additional protections for the menhaden population in the Atlantic,” Malloy’s office said Tuesday. “Connecticut representatives, under the governor’s leadership, will advocate for the need of real conservation being implemented to protect against the reduction of the menhaden population.”
More than a year ago in Nov. 2011 Malloy spoke about the issue with reporters outside the LP Wilson Center in Windsor.