By Hilary Hutcheson, as featured in April's edition of "Fly Fisherman" magazine.
I love a good paradox. Like booze-brazen men hitting on the prettiest girl in the bar by buying her expensive drinks until the merciful bartender finally informs them that the girl actually owns the establishment. Or, the old Dos Equis ads about the most interesting man in the world, who finds the fountain of youth but doesn’t drink from it because he’s “not thirsty.” And the realization that the most important fish in the sea are bait. And why shouldn’t baitfish get multiple pages of coverage in a magazine where large, beautiful, often exotic, and coveted species grace the cover? After all, if fly fishing on the East Coast is a 1990s teen movie, the striped bass is the popular, handsome football quarterback and the Atlantic menhaden is his not-so-hot sidekick with a goofy nickname. Pogie. Or Bunker. But by the end of the flick, Pogie gets the girl.
Link in the Chain Small, oily, and historically abundant, Atlantic menhaden—also known as pogies or bunker—are not commonly used for human food. They’re processed into animal feed, dietary supplements, lipstick, and other products. But a zoom-out shows that menhaden are hot shots of the food web, with great ecological influence. As filter feeders, they help mitigate toxic algal blooms by feeding on phytoplankton. After they eat phytoplankton, photosynthetic organisms that convert sunlight to energy, menhaden then get eaten by bigger fish and birds. They are a principal prey species for predators like whales, tuna, flounder, drums, sharks, bluefish, mackerel, and striped bass, and they’re food staples for birds like ospreys, egrets, herons, and northern gannets.
Scientists say this plankton-to-predator pogie connection distributes energy throughout the coastal region and is crucial to a healthy ecosystem. “That’s why Atlantic menhaden need to be managed for their role in the entire system, not just their own sustainable harvest,” says Capt. John McMurray, president of the American Saltwater Guides Association. In recent history, says McMurray, fishery managers based their menhaden decisions on a single species stock assessment—looking at how many menhaden can be taken out of the ocean without causing the stock to decline. That assessment typically shows the baitfish in abundance. “And when it looks like that stock is plentiful, they can raise the harvest level, which can be harmful to our industry,” says McMurray. “Because they’re not looking at the predators like striped bass that depend on the menhaden. A multi-species stock assessment looks at how other fish are doing, and it considers impacts of depleting a food source.”
The opportunity to finally base Atlantic menhaden management on the species’s role in the ecosystem came in August 2020, when the Menhaden Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted ecological reference points, or ERPs. ERPs are thresholds for fish harvests that would allow for healthy predator populations. The idea is to determine harvest levels of menhaden by including data on biomass targets for striped bass, which would reflect biomass of other predatory species as well. McMurray says the board’s commitment to using ERPs is long overdue and a big first step toward ecosystem management. Still, just two months later, when it came time for the board to set the total allowable catch, or TAC for 2021-2022, the new quota disappointed many fly fishers. With the new ERPs in mind, McMurray says the new catch quota should technically have no more than a 50% probability of exceeding the newly acknowledged ERP target fishing mortality, which would mean an 18% reduction in TAC from prior years. Projections from the Atlantic Menhaden Technical Committee suggest the quota for the last several years had more than a 60% chance of exceeding the ERP target.
Ultimately, the board approved a quota with a 58% chance of exceeding the ERP target in the first year and a 52% chance in the following year. That translates to a 10% reduction in commercial menhaden harvest. The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board says the new TAC “reaffirms the Board’s commitment to manage the fishery in a way that accounts for the species’s role as a forage fish.” Board Chair Spud Woodward says, “The TAC strikes a balance between stakeholder interests to maintain harvest on menhaden at recent levels, while also allowing ERP models to do what they are intended to do. This TAC represents a measured and deliberate way for this Board to move into the realm of ecosystem-based management.” While the American Saltwater Guides Association says the 10% reduced catch is better than the status quo, it doesn’t go far enough. “The best available science says the reduction should be more in order to account for the needs of striped bass and other predators, but special interests are involved, and that’s where we see one company vying to take more than they should,” says McMurray.
Omega Protein is a reduction fishery company operating in the northwest Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. The 140-year-old company, based in Reedville, Virginia, is responsible for 90% of the total menhaden harvest in the United States, processing the harvest into cosmetics, pet food, and nutritional supplements. It employs 125 people year-round, with that number doubling during peak fishing season. It’s the livelihoods of these employees, Omega Protein spokespersons say, that drives the company to push back against reductions in their catch. In a statement to Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Omega said, “These are the people whose livelihoods depend on a healthy menhaden population and who will now face economic hardships from the reduction.” The company also states that the commission’s “decision to reduce the coastwide by 10%, while not preferred, is not an unreasonable step toward moving to ecological management of this species.” Guide’s Life Capt. Abbie Schuster is a fly-fishing guide, outfitter, and fly shop owner on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. She says guides check in with each other on how many stripers they’re seeing. “We have to stay on top of what’s going on, not just for our clients that week, but for the long-term health of our industry,” says Schuster. And it’s been an adjustment for many guides, she says, to make a habit of attending policy hearings and association meetings. “The new quota is set for the next two seasons, and that time will go fast, so we need to pay close attention to how our fish are impacted and how they’re dealing with increased stressors like climate change along the way. Guides need to be ready to come to the board next time with clear feedback, since we’re the ones out there every day.”
And here we find another paradox in the reality of coastal fly-fishing guides who chose a career seemingly distant from suits and ties, boardrooms, and policy reports, now buttoning up (albeit with awkward grooming) under fluorescent lights to assert an argument countering those of seasoned (and expertly groomed) lobbyists. “These guides got into the business because they don’t want to do this kind of stuff,” says McMurray. “Public speaking in front of a lot of people, sitting in meetings and hearings. But they get up there and speak from the heart and say what these decisions mean to them and people sit up and listen and say, ‘hey now, that’s something, that’s compelling.’” Recreational fishing trips on the East Coast generate more than $6 billion in annual economic value, according to an economic report by Stripers Forever (stripersforever.org). But if the stripers don’t show up, the recreational anglers won’t either. “We’re looking at this from a jobs perspective, just like the commercial guys,” says McMurray. “We’re not elitist, we live hand to mouth, we’re gritty and weathered and have messed-up hands and skin, and our families make sacrifices just like theirs. The difference is, we need to have these fish in the water, and not so we can play with them for fun. We have to make a living, and that’s crucial not just for the guides, but for all the businesses that stem off of our industry. There are a lot of stakeholders who need the fish in the water.”
Since the recently-set catch quota stands until 2022, McMurray is now tasked with ensuring that members of the American Saltwater Guides Association don’t lose sight of this issue. They’ll once again have the chance to weigh in on the importance of managing bait for the sake of the ecosystem. The management is, in itself, a paradox. Sustain the prey by giving attention to the predators that prey upon it. A paradox can take us outside our typical way of thinking. And typical thinking would presume that Atlantic states fly fishers think mostly of striped bass. But for these striper thoughts to be positive, they’re preempted by an abundance of oily bait on the brain.
Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she continues to guide the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her daughters Ella and Delaney, her partner Ebon, and their three-legged Labrador Jolene. Her last story in Fly Fisherman was Bull Trout Bastion in the June-July 2020 issue, now available at flyfisherman.com.