Saving Our Atlantic Fish Population: Yes We Can!

20 May, 2014

Guest post from Food Tank

This is the first in a two part series on reviving Atlantic fisheries. 

Can Managing Holistically Revive the Great Atlantic Fisheries?

For Jim Laurie it began with a question: What would it take to bring back the large Atlantic cod, the base of New England’s once great fisheries and rich maritime culture? Despite stricter quotas in recent years, cod stocks have yet to rebound. For an answer Laurie, a restoration ecologist based in Woburn, Mass., looked not toward conventional means of ocean conservation, such as marine protected areas. Rather, he turned to a practice usually applied to livestock: holistic management, in which grazing animals—cattle, sheep, horses—serve as a tool for large-scale land restoration. Holistic management combines ecosystem-based management with a decision-making framework that addresses complexity. Laurie’s exploration has launched an effort focused on restoring populations of menhaden, a small fish he sees as pivotal to the vitality of the Atlantic waters—and ultimately the cod—and allowing it to fill its crucial ecological niche.

The challenge is that menhaden have a formidable predator: the reduction industry, which uses the fish for multiple commercial projects. Laurie is now building a network of marine researchers, conservationists and policy makers to devise specific steps to bring menhaden back in sufficient numbers for the coastal seas to function again.

The fish at the heart of Laurie’s plan is hardly charismatic. Even its fiercest champions conceded it’s oily, small—rarely exceeding a foot in length—smelly, and ugly. Yet the menhaden, often called “pogy” or “mossbunker” and once prolific and used for bait, plays a unique role in the Atlantic coastal ecosystem: it eats ocean plant matter, which helps curtail algae overgrowth; it converts phytoplankton and zooplankton to proteins; and it’s a favored meal of fish like cod, tuna, swordfish and striped bass—fish that grace our menus yet whose numbers have plummeted. So integral are these spiny fish to Atlantic waters that they star in historian H. Bruce Franklin’s book “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.” Says Joseph Gordon, Manager, U.S. Oceans, Northeast, with the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose Atlantic Menhaden Campaign aims to improve menhaden management and increase its population. “Menhaden are the lifeblood of the Atlantic Ocean. They provide an important food source for nearly every creature that swims in or flies above it.”

Unfortunately, neither the fish nor birds that eat them have a voice in what happens to menhaden. Those decisions fall to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), an interstate agency that covers fisheries along the entire coast and whose regulators, say public trust advocates, have been shown to favor commercial interests. Menhaden have been used for numerous products, from omega-3 supplements to pet food to cosmetics and, increasingly as feed for industrial fish farms, often in Asia. They’re also extremely easy to catch: a purse seine—a dragnet that closes up like a purse—can scoop up entire schools.

As Franklin points out, the menhaden “reduction” industry has been mining the Atlantic seas since the 1700s, when menhaden products were used for fertilizer and, later, lamp oil. This yielded prosperous manufacturing centers and, beginning in the late 19th century, laws restricting the reduction industry from the waters of many states, the first being Maine in 1879. Today one company, Reedville, VA-based Omega Protein, dominates the industry, accounting for about 80 percent of the catch.

What the Fisheries Were—and Could Be

In holistic management you start with a mental picture of what you hope for, and look at what’s needed to get there. Laurie’s vision is this: the North Atlantic waters teeming with fish of all sizes, types and stripe, a future seascape that looks much as it did before the age of trawling and indiscriminate bycatch—practices that have led to the collapse of a quarter of the world’s fisheries and plunged worldwide populations of large fish down 90 percent. The next step is to understand how the ecology functioned when it was healthy, and how the system self-organizes. Laurie’s training in whole-system thinking derives from his two decades creating aquatic systems to treat wastewater in the chemical industry. His mentor in eco-restoration was John Todd, a renowned pioneer of ecological design with whom Laurie later worked in Vermont. Laurie says Todd taught him how to work with the food web, and that “you don’t talk about waste, you talk about nutrients” for other species.

As Laurie explains, menhaden are filter feeders, which means that they continuously “graze” the waters—for phytoplankton as juveniles, after which they shift mostly to zooplankton—and can thus be seen as ‘livestock” of the seas. Indeed, menhaden’s role and behavior parallel that of land-locked grazers. They move in schools that could be likened to herds, shoals of hundreds of thousands of fish that can be many miles long. And, of course, they’re attractive to predators.

Like grazing herbivores, says Laurie, menhaden “help to create the habitat in which they and their predators thrive.” The framework of holistic management, developed by wildlife biologist Allan Savory and now implemented on more than 30 million acres worldwide, explains how many of our grassland ecosystems are desertifying, or losing the capacity to sustain life: grasslands and grazing animals co-evolved, so that the land needs the animals in the same way that the animals need the land. A degree of animal impact stimulates plant growth, presses in seeds and aerates the soil, but predators keep herds moving so that no area is overgrazed.

The same holds true for menhaden, says Laurie. Menhaden schools, averting predator fish, move through the sea, filtering small particles from the water. Franklin says an adult menhaden can filter four gallons per minute, and that the fish used to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay twice a day.

“Algae was meant to be grazed, just as grass was meant to be grazed,” says Laurie. “A grazing plan for the East Coast would benefit not just the fish and its predators but other species, like sea grasses and sea turtles, that suffer when there are algae blooms.” Nutrient-rich fertilizer runoff flowing into the seas has contributed to algae overgrowth as, over the last 25 years, menhaden populations have dropped nearly 90 percent. Laurie regards the resulting dead zones as the underwater equivalent of deserts. He’s seen desert lands rebound through restorative grazing and says, “If we can restore the deserts of the world, we can restore the deserts of the seas. We need to understand the food webs. None of the fish we eat, like cod, are able to eat algae. The cod will never come back unless the menhaden come back.”

Food Tank is a food think tank founded Ellen Gustafson and Danielle Nierenberg. Food Tanks is for farmers and producers, policy makers and government leaders, researchers and scientists, academics and journalists, and the funding and donor communities to collaborate on providing sustainable solutions for our most pressing environmental and social problems.

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  • Skeet

    I think Laurie is on the right track, but I think the harmful effects of overfishing are far more destructive than most people realize. Loss of populations of menhaden lead to eutrophication, and changes in algal species–like a change from diatoms that support our systems to cyanobacteria that are useless to most species. This happens when menhaden are not there to graze zooplankton who then eat all the beneficial algae (diatoms). Our ecosystems can be far more productive if we restore the natural populations. We should be farming filter feeding species like clams and oysters that help clean up the water.