In the 1940s, a company in Reedville, Virginia, that fished Atlantic menhaden for "reduction" (industrial processing) described the little silvery fish as "made for Man to harvest." To them, the supply was inexhaustible, with no other value except crab pot bait.
Today, that viewpoint seems outrageous, but it dies hard. It has caused big problems for the menhaden, aka "bunker, pogy, or alewife." These herring relatives have ranged along the coast in astronomical numbers for thousands of years. Most of the fish winter and spawn off the Carolina coast.
In late winter, young-of-the-year move into estuaries to feed and grow. One-to-two-year-olds come in the spring. The Chesapeake provides them critical habitat. Older fish migrate further north, so the largest menhaden go to New England (where large Chesapeake rockfish spend the summer).
Why such vast numbers? Simple: menhaden eat low on the food web. They are omnivorous filter feeders, straining whatever water they swim through. Depending on a fish's age, it might catch phytoplankton (tiny algae cells), zooplankton (tiny invertebrate animals), or, especially in estuaries, detritus (semi-decayed plant material).
The success of this ecological niche lies in tapping these vast food sources and converting them to oily, protein-filled flesh for the next level of the coastal food web. Menhaden feed predators like rockfish, bluefish, and sea trout, plus ospreys, loons, gannets, and marine mammals. Their value to these iconic fish and birds is immense.
We humans make scant use of menhaden as food; their greatest direct economic values are oil, fish meal, and bait for fin- and shellfish. The oil goes into industrial products, including paints, cosmetics, and Omega-3 diet supplements. The leftover high-protein meal becomes livestock feed and pet food.
The reduction industry came to the Chesapeake in the 1870s. Skillful captains and crews use purse seines to surround menhaden schools. Small airplanes help find fish. The harvest is highly automated, using twin 32-foot "purse boats" and 175-foot-long "steamers" (mother ships). Reedville is the fishery's hub. The industry supports 250 good-paying jobs. To learn more, visit the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.
As bait, the menhaden's oily flesh exudes a trail to lure crabs and lobsters, as well as rockfish and bluefish. It has been particularly valuable here since the invention of the crab pot in 1928.
The bait fishery is concentrated between North Carolina and Massachusetts. Every watermen's village from Hampton Roads to Rock Hall is dependent on bait--likewise coastal North Carolina, Delaware Bay, New Jersey, and Long Island. With recent cutbacks in the Atlantic herring fishery because of depleted stocks, menhaden are now critical for New England’s lobster fishery. Though more spread out than the reduction fishery, the bait fishery supports more jobs.
How many menhaden do these human fisheries catch? On recent average, about 200,000 metric tons (that’s 440,925,000 pounds per year). According to peer-reviewed fishery science, however, the current menhaden stock stands at only 8 percent of an un-fished population, the lowest point on record. Are we wise enough to back off before we crash it?
Consider these alarming statistics: Historically, menhaden provided 70 percent of an adult rockfish's diet, but that number has fallen to 8 percent. The percentage for Chesapeake ospreys has fallen from 70 percent to 28 percent, causing serious chick mortality. Clearly, a healthy menhaden stock is as vital to the Atlantic ecosystem as to humans. At 8 percent, there aren’t enough to go around. What to do?
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) coordinates and enforces fishery management plans for menhaden from Florida to Maine. It includes three commissioners from each state and one from the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. Last year, ASMFC's commissioners took the unprecedented step of setting an overfishing threshold to allow the population to grow to 15 percent, with a management target of 30 percent. This fall, the commissioners must decide how to reduce the catch without major harm to human fishermen and their communities, to leave enough for rockfish, bluefish, and sea trout, plus ospreys, loons, gannets, and marine mammals. It's a delicate balancing act. Like restoring the Chesapeake, if it were easy, we'd have done it long ago.
ASMFC has held public hearings on the new management plan and is taking written comment through November 16. YOU can play a valuable role by educating yourself and submitting comments. Public input played a key role in setting the threshold and target last year, and it will again.
We had enough wisdom to pull back on blue crabs five years ago. Today, the population is much healthier. It's time to give menhaden the same respect, for ourselves as well as fish, birds, crabs, and lobsters. Our Bay and Atlantic coast won’t be healthy without them.
—John Page Williams
Senior Naturalist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation