In case you haven’t heard, a multinational fish farming company (Cooke Inc.) has made a deal to purchase Omega Protein Inc. and take them into the private sector. While the ink is not dry on this deal, it is obvious that the American fishing community will not be part of this new portfolio. There is no doubt that new, private ownership will continue to disregard the needs of the ecosystem and coastal businesses, and seek to increase harvest levels to feed salmon, sea bass and sea bream farms around the globe.

No bunker equals no bass. No bass equals no fishermen, and when the angler money that comes with them vaporizes, it will be disastrous to the local economy.

This move is clearly a game-changer for the menhaden game as we know it. It will no longer be transparent, and recreational anglers will most certainly get the short end of the stick once again. It doesn’t take a fortune teller to know that it will be profit first, ecosystem last — business as usual. We can only imagine what lurks beneath the surface of this deal. In any case, it is very clear that more American bait fish will be vacuumed up, exported to who knows where, then sold back to us as salmon and other fish, as our already suffering coastal ecosystems and businesses take yet another hit.

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There is an upcoming decision on November 13 and 14, and while we have past the public comment submission period, your voice should still be heard by your state's Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) members. So please get online and shoot an email off to each of them ASAP. Menhaden Defenders' mission has and always will be to restore, rebuild and sustain the bunker population from Maine to Florida so the entire coastline's ecosystems and related waterfront economy can benefit from an abundance of these vital baitfish.

Atlantic menhaden (bunker, pogy) are the backbone of the entire East Coast and Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystems. Hundreds of small businesses  — from tackle and coffee shops to marinas and boat dealerships along Jersey’s coast — depend upon the abundance of these bait fish to feed game fish and keep people fishing. Jersey anglers targeting striped bass, bluefish and summer flounder know just how important bunker are for these species to survive.

Bunker are clearly the glue that holds New Jersey’s fishing together. Studies now show that there is a direct correlation between an abundant bunker population and a healthy striper population. No bunker equals no bass. No bass equals no fishermen, and when the angler money that comes with them vaporizes, it will be disastrous to the local economy.

For the past couple of years, we have finally seen massive schools of peanut bunkers (young  menhaden) returning along our shoreline in the fall and surf casters are able to enjoy catching bass in our boots right off the beach. This is due directly to the first-ever catch limits that were implemented due to a lot of hard work and thousands of anglers speaking out back in 2012. The ASMFC heard us loud and clear, and made the historic move to reduce catch. All of us can see on the water that with just a little moderation and reduction of catch, the bunker will multiply fast and bounce back stronger as time goes on. Additionally, we now have more dolphins, whales, osprey and eagles along our beaches feeding on the now more abundant bunkers.

Coastal Conservation is Working

All these signs tell us that it is clearly best for New Jersey to continue with the coastal conservation momentum that we have. Instead of continually working to increase catch limits, we should manage more conservatively with ecological reference points next year. All of the three options on the table right now are far superior to our current management system, and for the record, we support the most conservative option: Option E. With this reference point, it is essential that catch be managed to the target of 75 percent of the virgin biomass and that the new reference points be implemented ASAP in the 2018 season. This is better for Jersey’s fishermen  — both commercial and recreational — and a real win for the New Jersey economy.

Holding the catch limit right where it is right now makes a lot of sense. What doesn't make sense is why a single state continues to get 85 percent of the quota and refuses to share with the other states. If Virginia were to get a catch increase right now, New Jersey’s bunker bait boats would get barely a micron of the quota. For years, Menhaden Defenders has advocated for a 70/30 split — that is, 70 percent for Omega and 30 percent  for splitting up between the bait fleet in each state. It’s up to the reduction industry (formerly Omega) to give up quota and share with the other players in the industry.

Back in 2007, New Jersey recreational anglers and fishing organizations along with bait netters teamed up together to get Omega’s factory ships out of New Jersey waters because we all knew that if we pushed them out, we would all collectively benefit. Currently, the New Jersey bait netters continue to side with Omega to push the catch cap as high as possible so they can get whatever remains. 

Back in 2012, Gov. Christie sided with the former governor of Virginia in exchange for political favors while selling out the recreational fishing community of New Jersey — something he promised that he would not do. Christie did it again at subsequent ASMFC votes in 2015 and 2016, and to this day, Christie’s team continues to make sure that the state's ASMFC members vote against menhaden conservation. With New Jersey’s consistent anti-conservation vote, they are in turn voting to increase catch from waters right at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay — the very nursery that the overwhelming majority of our coastal stripers come from.

The implementation of ecosystem-based management strategies will carry us well into the future and ensure that the base of the marine food web chain remains healthy enough to feed ALL of the creatures in the sea and sustain coastal business. Ecosystem-based fishery management strategies are clearly the direction of fisheries management in the future.

Buckle your seatbelts and cross your fingers, fishermen. Between this and quota reallocation issues, it will be another crazy historic bunker vote day. One thing is for sure, it will be really interesting to see how all the states that make up the ASMFC will vote, especially New Jersey.

About the Author:
Captain Paul Eidman is founder of Menhaden Defenders, a conservation advocacy group working to rebuild the Atlantic menhaden (bunker fish) population back to historic population levels from Maine to Florida. Eidman is a lifelong recreational angler and conservationist, and is owner and operator of Reel Therapy Fly & Light Tackle fishing charters, based in Monmouth County.