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Saving our schools: thanks to improved management, the future looks brighter for menhaden, mullet and other so-called baitfish.

There's more to menhaden than meets the eye. These fast-growing, schooling fishes are a vital forage source for many kinds of larger fish. The connection with big tarpon, for example, as clearly depicted elsewhere in this issue. Seabirds and porpoises also depend on the seasonal abundance.

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The same may be said for dozens of other small fishes that flourish along the Florida coastlines: mullet, sardines, herrings, anchovies and more. You might call them baitfish, but their value extends well beyond their utility on the end of your hook. Protecting this resource from overfishing is of utmost importance.

Through the early 1990s, mullet and other species faced the possibility of collapse due to enormous commercial netting pressures.

The Asian market had developed a fancy for mullet roe and the lure of money replaced any sense of conservation. The net ban amendment passed overwhelmingly by Florida voters in 1994 stopped that slaughter, eliminating gill nets and huge seine nets. Mullet have fared better since the net ban although the Asian market hasn't lost its taste for fish eggs, perpetuating demand.

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Commercial netting of menhaden goes back to colonial days, primarily along the mid-Atlantic U.S. coastline. The current center of landings is the Chesapeake Bay area, but there's reason to believe that what goes on there impacts Florida. With nicknames including LY, bunker, pogy and shad, huge schools of menhaden traditionally swarmed Atlantic and Gulf waters. The oily flesh is a delicacy to most gamefish, but the popularity of menhaden as a market commodity--typically the death knell for any species--began as a fuel oil and has evolved into a popular protein supplement for humans and animal feed.

Using spotter planes and huge factory ships, commercial interests netted millions of pounds of menhaden until factors such as the net ban amendment, Gulf oil spill and an unstable economy reduced the number of factories from dozens to just a few. Omega Protein operates factories in Houston, Texas, and Reedville, Virginia.

Raffield Fisheries in Port St. Joe on Florida's Panhandle still nets menhaden, principally for use as bait in commercial traps. There are similar operations along the eastern seaboard.

Keith Fischer, a biologist for Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) in St. Petersburg, analyzes data for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The FWC oversees state waters from shore to three miles on the Atlantic and out to nine on the Gulf.

"I hear the concerns about baitfish populations from fishermen, and while there are fluctuations I see no declining trend in the data," Fischer said. "The last assessment on Gulf menhaden took place in 2007 and it looked healthy and self-sustaining with no evidence of overfishing."

Stock assessments don't always tell the whole story, and that's certainly been the case with Atlantic menhaden. A 2010 assessment, by the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC) indicated the population wasn't overfished, but anglers clearly knew something was wrong. The fish were disappearing from areas where they'd long been abundant, including Northeast Florida.

In the fall of 2011, under pressure from conservation groups like CCA, the ASMFC voted to change the definition of overfished as it applies to menhaden. The new target for Atlantic menhaden is 30-percent of Maximum Spawning Potential (a reflection of abundance compared to natural population in an un-fished condition). The Atlantic menhaden population had been hovering at the 8-percent level, with annual commercial landings in the 100,000 metric-ton range.

"Clearly these fish do indeed need to be managed, and managed conservatively," said Richard Brame, CCA Atlantic Fisheries director. "The debate now becomes about how conservatively should they be managed, and that is a much better scenario for menhaden, for sportfish and for anglers. It took a very long time and a lot of work by many, many groups, but the ASMFC did the right."

Through the summer of 2012, the ASMFC is developing strategies to meet the new target and rebuild the menhaden stocks. These may include seasons, trip limits and gear modifications for the Chesapeake-based commercial menhaden fleet.

As to mullet, a Florida population survey is completed every five years, the next due in 2013. According to FWRI research scientist Behzad Mahmoudi, "The mullet biomass and spawning stock is increasing. Landings dropped from 20 to 25 million pounds per year to 8 to 10 million pounds after the net ban, and assessments show that the level of landing is definitely sustainable."

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While no alarm bells are ringing at present for species such as pinfish, Spanish sardines, threadfin herring and cigar minnows, the rosy assessments by FWRI on menhaden and mullet don't resonate with some fishing guides.

Said Capt. Dave Pomerleau of Sarasota, "We're not seeing nearly as many menhaden as we used to and same with glass minnows," he said. "The commercial cast netters are ruining the mullet populations with the spawners' roe being sold to the Asian market. The netters are also hammering ladyfish--when mullet become scarce during winter, that's what they target instead."

Captain Chester Reese from Carrabelle, on the Panhandle, reports that while some netters throwing 14-footers loaded up with menhaden for about three weeks this spring, there's been a declining trend the past 10 years. "LYs come and go due to a lot of factors. The threadfin herring have been thick, however, but we don't see the giant schools of mullet anymore."

Mechanisms are in place to rebuild Florida and regional baitfish populations, but in other parts of the world, forage fish get little support. Some sources foresee an international crisis at hand, with groups like the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force calling for a catch reduction of 50 percent worldwide.
CLOSURE JUNGLE SEASON CHECKER

For the month of JULY 2012 as of press time

FLORIDA SALTWATER FINFISH

ATLANTIC COAST

Permit CLOSED S. of Capr FL

Red snapper CLOSED Fed. waters

Snook CLOSED

Warsaw grouper, CLOSED Fed. waters
speckled hind

GULF OF MEXICO

Amberjack, greater CLOSED Fed. waters

Snook CLOSED

Permit CLOSED S. of Cape Sable

Gag grouper CLOSED Franklin, Wakulla,
 Jefferson, Taylor cos.
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Title Annotation:On the Conservation Front
Author:Kelly, Doug
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jul 1, 2012
Words:1006
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