Issue: October 2006
FROM THE EDITOR: One Fish, Two Fish

ou'd think it'd be a pretty straightforward thing, counting fish. There goes one, and there's another, and another. That's three. Then four and five, and so on. How hard could it be? Especially if you had one of those clicker things.

But it turns out that counting fish is not such a simple thing - or rather, counting fish, to the limited extent it's even possible, is only where the business of estimating fish populations begins. From there you go into "modeling" - the nitty-gritty of which, I assure you, will leave you scratching your head and wondering why you can't just . . . use one of those clicker things.

Think I'm overstating it? Okay, I'd hoped I wouldn't have to do this, but here's a brief example of modeling-speak, taken from the most recent "stock assessment" (population estimate) of Atlantic menhaden, conducted in 2003 by the Menhaden Technical Committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC):
"In this assessment . . . FMEDcontinues to be used to represent FREPas the F-threshold. However, in the current forward-projection model, FMAXwas infinite, possibly due to varying M at age and other aspects of the model. . . . The panel noted that the proposed F-target, though arbitrary, was not capricious and yielded a target that was sufficiently lower than the threshold so that deviations of F from the target will not result in overfishing."

Personally, I'm outraged that someone would even suggest that an F-target might be capricious, but we'll save that discussion for another time. For now we'll focus on the term "overfishing," the only concept in the foregoing paragraph that I actually understand. It is the core issue with menhaden - the small herring-like fish at the center of a stand-off between the aforementioned ASMFC, which wants to limit the Bay menhaden harvest for the next four years, and Omega Protein, the company that does the vast majority of said harvesting [see "A Fish Called Menhaden", one of three intriguing stories in our sixth annual "State of Our Bay" report].

Is it overfished? No, say the Omega people and their advocates, pointing to the irrefutable numbers - i.e., the aforementioned stock assessment, which concluded that the "coastwide" menhaden population was healthy.

Is it overfished? Yes, say environmentalists and recreational fishermen, pointing to the irrefutable numbers - i.e., beach seine surveys and rockfish stomach-content studies, which show a significant and persistent decline in the numbers of juvenile menhaden being "recruited" into the Bay.

Is it overfished? Who really knows? And in fact the issue has moved beyond the numbers. The ASMFC acknowledged both statistical realities when it decided last summer to limit Omega's annual take in the Bay. Now, as you'll see, it has become a strange sort of slow-motion procedural tango between the commission's menhaden board and Virginia, which has passively resisted the board's proposed harvest limits for over a year.

You'd think it'd be a pretty straightforward thing, fisheries politics. . .