I recently attended a fascinating presentation that really got me thinking. Uniquely, the focus was on forage-based management for predator species, a principle that has potential to impact nearly everything we know about managing for healthy fish populations.
As bass anglers, we have a tendency to think of ourselves at the top of the food chain when it comes to fisheries management. Yet the event I reference concerns a fishery far, far more important than even that of our beloved bucketmouths. Believe it or not, we’re talking about saltwater menhaden.
While “on location” and reeling in redfish in famed Venice, La., myself and other members of the press learned of the work of Dr. Jerry Ault, a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science. Ault gave a historical background of the commercial menhaden industry, its massive reduction of this important forage fish through both Atlantic and Gulf states’ waters, and the political and lobbying power behind the commercial fishing superpowers manipulating government today.
Immediately noticeable was the estimated take of menhaden – reported at over 1 billion pounds annually. Just as breathtaking was the method of determining this creel: due to previous rules set by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, all catches are self-reported, with little or no regulation, no annual catch limit for the Gulf and no way to track each commercial entity.
It’s important to note that, in addition to playing an incredibly important role as a forage specie, menhaden also provide immeasurable powers to filter the water. Thus, food plus environmental benefits.
Finally, we learned of allowance of a 5 percent by-catch when netting menhaden (again, self-reported), amounting to over 50,000,000 pounds of whatever happens to be inhabiting the same waters as the forage fish, such as cobia, redfish, tuna and sharks. Wasted, dead, by-catch.
As anglers, we were an easy audience to sway. For the most part, our interest in fishing stemmed from the hard pull of a bull red more than the going rate for a netful of commercial catch. But that’s not to say that we represent America as a whole.
Currently, there appears to be tremendous momentum in managing toward game species as much or more as commercial interests. We’ll address that more in-depth in the near future. For now it’s important to realize that such a shift may be occurring, even through it presents a direct objection to the commercial workforce.
So how does this affect bass fishermen? By setting an example.
While I’m sure there’s been some forage-based management in fisheries across the country, for the most part, such ideas seem unpopular with state fisheries managers. As a whole, the only real data existing on bass management, again based on the forage-first principle, is for use in small, private lakes and ponds.
Very little has been researched on the ecological relationship between forage and predator species in many of our lakes.
For example, it’s thought that bluegill play a primary role in maintaining a healthy bass population and producing good growth for predator fish. How, then, do we explain the massive explosion of both size and structure of bass populations in lakes where they spend so much time feeding on shad? Should we be managing to ensure long-term, healthy shad populations?
And what about exotics that quickly became favorite bass snacks, like round gobies? Anyone who’s spent much time fishing up north quickly attributes ballooning smallmouths to gobies, yet how much do we know about their displacement of other baitfish?
What about the population crashes of crayfish in lakes with zebra mussels; what do the bass turn to then?
What about forage species and their relationship to water filtration: the massive algae blooms being experienced in estuaries all over the country as an example, or the vast dead zone in western Lake Erie?
Finally, what happens when forage species change due to a changing environment? As we see overall lake temperatures rise across the board, and the added nutrients coming into many bodies of water, we’ll begin to see higher populations of forage that can fit that environment, perhaps shad or even carp. Can we manage our bass populations around them?
And what if our forage populations are suddenly under attack? It may surprise many to learn that blueback herring populations – highly commercialized fish species in the ocean - undergo heavy netting before moving through lock structures into the Santee Cooper chain of lakes, where they provide important meals for largemouth and stripers. Lightly, we must tread.
Right now, I’m not sure anyone knows the answer. But down in Louisiana, captains, researchers and lodge owners are taking on much bigger enemies in the form of multi-billion dollar corporations and politicians who often couldn’t care less about their beloved redfish.
As hardcore anglers, I urge you to learn more and support this issue by visiting sites like www.menhadendefenders.org, or the Anglers Conservation Network.
As bass anglers, I encourage you to think outside the box, taking steps to understand how similar relationships may affect our fisheries. It’s important we stay united; a step ahead of the challenges. Only education and open minds can ensure that.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)