New Challenges AND New Optimism for the Fuel of the Food Web

OspreyWithMenhaden2Osprey like this one above heavily rely on nutrient-rich menhaden, often called "the most important fish in the sea." Photo by iStock.

Once more those small, silvery, nutrient-rich fish called menhaden have taken center stage in fisheries management and Chesapeake conservation. On May 5, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which manages the coast-wide catch of menhaden and 23 other migratory fish species, met in Alexandria, Va., to revisit the way menhaden are managed. Specifically they met to discuss raising the harvest quota for menhaden after a recent stock assessment found an increase in biomass (the total weight of the population), but a decrease in abundance (the actual number of fish).

Often dubbed "the most important fish in the sea," menhaden are a fundamental link in the Bay's food web, serving as valuable sustenance for striped bass and many other fish, marine mammal, and seabird species. Their health directly affects the health of the entire ecosystem. 

We sat down with Bill Goldsborough, CBF's Fisheries Director, to get a better understanding of what happened at the meeting, and what it means for the fate of this critical fish.

  1. What happened at the meeting earlier this month?
    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to increase the current cap on menhaden harvest by 10 percent for both 2015 and 2016. It was a good management decision, because stakeholders on both sides seemed to be satisfied, but it was not a great conservation decision. CBF had urged ASMFC not to increase harvest quotas until measures were taken to ensure menhaden's ecological role in the Bay and beyond was protected.

    That said, a really good thing for menhaden conservation came out of this meeting. ASMFC initiated the process to amend the management plan for menhaden. With the amended plan, they are once and for all committing to developing ecological reference points (guidelines for optimal population levels and allowable fishing rates). The reference points we have right now are based on single-species management, designed to only account for the health and survival of menhaden alone, not the ecosystem as a whole. They do not fully account for menhaden's ecological value as an important forage fish that other marine creatures depend upon for food. Ecological reference points will effectively be more conservative guidelines for the fishery that will leave more menhaden in the water for the striped bass, osprey, and all the rest of the species in the ecosystem that depend on menhaden. This is huge . . . we've never had this level of commitment to develop and adopt ecological reference points. 

  2. How did ASMFC come to this decision?
    The most recent menhaden stock assessment found an increase in biomass (the total weight of the menhaden population), but a decrease in abundance (the actual number of fish).

    Five years ago, a menhaden stock assessment found that we had a depleted stock of menhaden, and there had been a history of overfishing. This spurred ASMFC to establish a catch quota (the first time ever in the history of menhaden management) and to set it at a level 20 percent below recent harvests, beginning in 2013.

    Now we have a new assessment that's just come out. It's good science and much more comprehensive, but it includes some different assumptions. One in particular assumes there is a mass of larger, older menhaden in northern waters off the coast of New England that are outside the range of the fishery (large menhaden that are not often caught in the fishery but that have been seen in surveys done by northern states). The menhaden fishery is concentrated in the mid-Atlantic, especially in and around Chesapeake Bay. The net effect of these large, old menhaden is to increase the biomass estimate over what we thought from the last assessment. 

  3. So menhaden that reside outside the area where people actually fish are boosting the biomass number?
    Exactly. To me, the most insidious thing that I don't think we're paying enough attention to is that as a result of this finding of increased biomass, the fishing industry is saying that we can catch more fish, but a lot of the fish are outside the area where fishing occurs. We're increasing the catch in the area where we don't have that higher biomass. And, according to this latest assessment, in an area where there is actually a lower abundance of menhaden—fewer numbers of fish in the population. In fact, it's the lowest abundance in the 60-year history of assessing the menhaden population, according to this new model. So the assessment does show higher biomass, but it also shows low abundance. The way to think of it is there are relatively more big, old fish, but not a lot of fish total. And numbers of prey are what's important to predators like striped bass. So this is a dynamic that we have to come to grips with.

  4. What's next for menhaden?
    We have to stay on top of the process that will play out through 2016. The amended management plan won't take effect until the 2017 fishing season. This is going to be a long, methodical process. We want to get it right this time. 

  5. Why are menhaden so important?
    Menhaden are the fuel of the food web, and we control the flow. Too low and we have problems with striped bass nutrition, diseases, mortality, and so forth. For a predator like striped bass that depends a lot on menhaden, if they're not a lot of menhaden available, they will shift to something else that's probably not as nutritious. They might shift to blue crabs—is that better for the bigger picture? So it's a tradeoff between management objectives. You have to think in an ecosystem-sense rather than a single-species context for ecologically important fish like menhaden. One industry representative calling for a catch increase at a recent ASMFC meeting said, "Don't leave these fish in the water to die!" That short-sighted statement ignores the fact that leaving menhaden in the water to be eaten satisfies an important management objective to keep the ecosystem healthyYou get incredible value from leaving these fish in the water.

For the sake of the striped bass and the osprey, the bluefish and the bald eagle that rely on these small, but all-important fish, we are pleased that ASMFC will be taking the long view and considering the health of the broader ecosystem when amending the menhaden management plan. After all, a healthy menhaden population means a healthier Chesapeake Bay. 

—Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media

Stay tuned for updates on this important fish and all the other Chesapeake species it supports by signing up for our e-newsletter.

Don't Raise Menhaden Catch Without Eco Safeguards

Atlantic MenhadenPhoto by Jay Fleming/iLCP.

Atlantic menhaden, those small, silvery fish that travel in large schools up and down the Atlantic Coast and Chesapeake Bay, may be swimming into trouble.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is meeting in Alexandria, Va., tomorrow and is considering raising the harvest quota for menhaden. That would allow even more of these boney little fish to be caught by commercial fishermen, who now remove approximately 80,000 tons of menhaden from Virginia waters each year.

And that has the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and thousands of conservationists and recreational anglers worried. Why?

Menhaden are the meat and potatoes of the marine world. As filter feeders of plankton, menhaden are packed with nutritional value and are food for striped bass (rockfish), bluefish, summer flounder, and other fish, marine mammals, osprey, eagles, and sea birds. In fact, menhaden are so critical in the marine food chain that they've been dubbed "the most important fish in the sea."

People love them, too, although not to eat. American Indians once used menhaden as fertilizer for corn. Early Colonial settlers processed them for lamp oil. In the late 19th century, the harvest peaked as menhaden oil replaced whale oil for lighting. But then the menhaden population began to collapse.

In the past century, all but one state gradually banned the large-scale fishing of this important fish; today, only Virginia allows "reduction" (industrial) menhaden fishing, which takes about 80 percent of the catch coast-wide. The oil and fish meal from the catch goes into paints, cosmetics, diet supplements, and animal feeds. The other 20 percent of the annual menhaden harvest is used as bait for blue crabs, lobster, and for recreational fishing. 

Biomass is a measure of weight, in metric tons. Abundance is a measure of quantity, in billions.

Meantime, menhaden numbers have continued to decline. While the latest scientific assessment of the population shows the "biomass" (the total weight of the fish stock) at a reasonable level, it also found that the total number of menhaden remains at historic lows.

Further, the number of young menhaden produced each year in the Chesapeake Bay, a key nursery for Atlantic menhaden, has been poor for the past 20 years. And Chesapeake striped bass, which normally eat lots of young menhaden, are suffering a chronic disease problem that has been linked to poor nutrition.

Concern about the long-term health of the menhaden population prompted the ASMFC, which manages the coast-wide catch, to reduce the commercial harvest by 20 percent in 2013. The move was widely seen as a prudent first step in restoring menhaden numbers to more sustainable levels.

Now just two years later, ASMFC is considering reversing course and increasing catch quotas, at least partially. Proponents argue the latest stock assessment justifies greater menhaden harvests. But as CBF Virginia Senior Scientist Chris Moore points out, the assessment also showed abundance, or total number of fish, remains low.    

"Although CBF is encouraged by the recent stock assessment, the results are actually mixed. While the total biomass is at an acceptable level, the overall menhaden abundance is at levels lower than when the fishery was declared overfished in the 1960s. And numbers of prey fish are what matters to predators like rockfish and ospreys.”

Moore also points out that the recent stock analysis is a "single-species assessment" and does not fully account for menhaden's ecological value as an important forage fish that other marine creatures depend upon for food.

"There is still important work to be done by ASMFC to ensure menhaden can fulfill their critical role in the coastal and Chesapeake Bay food web. CBF strongly recommends that ASMFC take no action to increase harvest quotas until ecological reference points are adopted or other measures taken that ensure menhaden’s ecological role is safeguarded."

CBF is monitoring the ASMFC meeting this week and will report actions taken, so stay tuned.

Chuck Epes, CBF's Assistant Director of Media Relations

Click here to read CBF's letter detailing our concerns to ASMFC.

Conserving Menhaden Will Restore Jobs, Not Destroy Them

MenhadenfishermenLater this week the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will meet to review public comments and adopt an updated coast-wide management plan for menhaden—an important, ecologically rich fish that has plummeted to record-low numbers in recent years. Some have argued that reducing the catch of menhaden will kill jobs and destroy the fishery, when in fact, quite the opposite is true.

Check out these five, often overlooked facts about how important restoring menhaden is to restoring our economy:

  1. Jobs in the marine fishing industry are based on publicly owned biological resources.  A key function of government is to maintain these resources for maximum public benefit. The latest science tells us that we have fished above the rate that would maximize benefits (overfishing) for 52 of the last 55 years. The Atlantic menhaden population has declined to its lowest point on record.
  2. In 1876, there were 99 menhaden reduction factories up and down the east coast. During World War I there were 18 plants in Reedville, VA, alone. In the late 1990s, when the ASMFC first began debating how to address the decline in menhaden numbers, there were three plants left. The Ampro Fisheries plant in Reedville was closed in 1997 after being bought out by its rival, Zapata Protein (which soon became Omega Protein), reducing the number of plants in Reedville to one. The Beaufort Fisheries plant in North Carolina closed in 2005. There is now only one plant left on the Atlantic Coast.
  3. Failing to take action is not the best prescription for the industry or its workers. Inaction may avoid a handful of job losses in the short term, but at the expense of continued overfishing which will inevitably lead to economic stagnation and possible further declines. Conserving menhaden will restore jobs, not destroy them, and benefit the ecosystem and the economy.
  4. Science and history demonstrate that strong conservation helps troubled fisheries:
    • When Atlantic striped bass stocks fell to historic lows three decades ago, the states imposed strict catch limits under an ASMFC management plan. Stripers rebounded to historic highs and now generate hundreds of millions of dollars in fishing-related revenues and thousands of jobs coastwide.
    • When the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population was down 70 percent five years ago, Virginia and Maryland prescribed science-based catch restrictions. Today, blue crabs are recovering dramatically, providing more crabs and more economic value.
  5. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted a management plan in 2001 with a wide range of objectives for stabilizing and enhancing the menhaden population for both economic prosperity in the fishery and the health of the marine ecosystem. It has spent a dozen years developing and applying the science and management tools for achieving these objectives. The actions now being considered are the result of an extended, methodical, transparent, and scientifically sound deliberative process.

A Make-Or-Break Moment for the "Most Important Fish in the Sea"

The following op-ed appeared on Friday in the Washington Post.

MenhadenCatch_JohnSurrickOne of the smallest fish in the Chesapeake Bay is also one of the most critical. Atlantic menhaden have been called "the most important fish in the sea" because of the vital ecological and economic roles they play in the Bay and along the Atlantic Coast.

Filter feeders, the silvery fish form massive schools that sweep through the water eating microscopic plants, animals, and detritus. Young menhaden are sardine-size, but they can grow into foot-long fish that are bony, oily, and considered quite unpalatable by human tastes.

Other critters love them, however. Menhaden are a major food source for striped bass, bluefish, summer flounder, weakfish, dolphin, whales, and iconic Chesapeake birds such as ospreys, loons, and pelicans. Seventy percent of an adult rockfish's diet typically has been menhaden. If you love angling for stripers or dining on rockfish fillets, you have to love menhaden, the little fish that makes it all possible.

But all is not well. And in Virginia, one peculiar legislative oddity could stand in the way of badly needed action.

For many years, menhaden numbers have been declining dramatically in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast. Today, they're at their lowest levels on record, or about 8 percent of unfished numbers. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages the coast-wide menhaden population, has concluded that menhaden have been experiencing overfishing for at least 32 of the past 54 years.

Equally disturbing are scientific reports that osprey in the lower Bay are suffering malnourishment linked to fewer menhaden; similar concerns have been raised about striped bass.

Help for menhaden could be on the way. But two things need to happen first.

First, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is considering steps to address the menhaden decline, must produce an aggressive action plan. Reducing annual harvests by 25 percent or more, for example, is an essential first step for allowing the population to recover. The commission will release a new conservation plan this month.

Second, East Coast states must implement the plan—including Virginia. If Virginia fails to adopt meaningful catch restrictions, menhaden simply will not recover.

That's because menhaden are the target of an intense, industrial-scale fishery operating in the Chesapeake Bay and off the mid-Atlantic coast by Omega Protein Corp. This "reduction fishery" uses spotter airplanes, mother ships, small boats, and giant nets to catch vast quantities of menhaden and bring them ashore to Reedville, Va. There, they are processed into fish meal and oil for vitamin supplements, cosmetics and animal feed. Eighty percent of all menhaden caught on the East Coast come back to Reedville, making the tiny town one of the nation's largest fish landing ports (by weight) and providing several hundred local jobs. Any conservation plan that doesn't apply to Virginia and the Omega Protein plant will have little effect.

But there's a problem. In Virginia, fisheries decisions are made by the state's Marine Resources Commission—except when they relate to one species. Yes, you guessed it: menhaden, which is instead managed by the 140 members of the General Assembly. This odd arrangement puts politicians, lobbyists and money, rather than scientists, in charge of menhaden. This, it goes without saying, does not bode well for making the tough choices needed now.

To overcome this, it is vital that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) take a leadership role in support of legislation that implements meaningful menhaden conservation. Powerful and successful precedents argue that he do so. Virginia took strong steps in the past to successfully rebuild the striped bass population and to spur the rebound of blue crabs in the Bay. The recovery of these species, and of menhaden, will benefit everyone, including Omega Protein, watermen, anglers and wildlife.

The fate of the "most important fish in the sea" may well depend upon it.

—Chris Moore 
CBF's Hampton Roads Senior Scientist

Learn more about this critical fish on our website here.

Photo by John Surrick/CBF Staff.

More Menhaden, More Bait, More Jobs

The following op-ed appeared in The Roanoke Times earlier this week. 

Menhaden photoThe next few months will be crucial for Atlantic menhaden, a small, silvery fish vital to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast. Also called pogie, fatback, and bunker, menhaden have been dubbed "the most important fish in the sea" because of their critical ecological and economic roles.

Menhaden are a major food source for striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, summer flounder, dolphin, whales, ospreys, loons, and pelicans. They are also the target of Virginia’s largest fishery, based in Reedville, that catches and converts menhaden to fish meal and oil. Menhaden are also harvested for bait to catch blue crabs and a variety of sport fish.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a partnership of coastal states from Maine to Florida, is considered the unbiased arbiter of menhaden science along the Atlantic Coast. In 2010 and 2012, the commission published stock assessments of the menhaden population that raise very troubling issues and indicate the need for greater conservation of menhaden.

Both ASMFC's 2010 and 2012 assessments clearly showed the menhaden population at or near all-time lows, or about eight percent of what an unfished population would be. Also, the number of young fish entering the population each year has remained remarkably low for nearly 20 years, a serious sign the population is not healthy.

The menhaden fishing industry has questioned ASMFC's science and consistently denied that menhaden are in trouble. ASMFC's peer-reviewed data, however, paint a much different picture, showing the population is experiencing overfishing and has been for at least 32 of the past 54 years.

The industry also contends menhaden numbers today are the same as 50 years ago, implying all is well, but neglecting that 50 years ago the population had plummeted and was declared overfished.

Finally, the industry uses the threat of massive job losses to argue against harvest reductions. However, there once were numerous menhaden industrial plants up and down the East Coast, employing thousands of workers. Today, with menhaden numbers the lowest on record, those fisheries have severely contracted. The Reedville plant is the only one left.

Is maintaining the status quo really the best course for the industry? In the long term, conserving menhaden will restore jobs, not destroy them.

Clearly, more aggressive steps must be taken to protect the menhaden population to enhance both the coastal ecosystem and menhaden-related jobs. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation calls upon the ASMFC to produce a robust menhaden conservation plan when it meets on Dec. 14, and for the Virginia General Assembly to approve its implementation during its 2013 legislative session.

—Chris Moore
CBF's Hampton Roads Senior Scientist

Balancing the Benefits of Menhaden

MenhadenCatch_JohnSurrickIndustrial fishing boats pull up a net chock-full of menhaden. Photo by John Surrick/CBF Staff.

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

To learn more, read our menhaden blog series.

Please take action TODAY to help restore menhaden and the Chesapeake Bay!


Should Virginia Secede from the Menhaden Union?

The following story appeared in the Bay Journal News Service.
Menhaden.JPGWatermen pull in another catch of menhaden. Photo by John Surrick/CBF Staff.

Secession is in the air once again in Virginia as a state senator has introduced a bill that would withdraw the commonwealth from the union of states that oversees fishery management along the coast.

Virginia State Senator Richard Stuart’s bill would separate Virginia from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a consortium of states from Maine to Florida that oversees the management and harvest of 24 species of fish ranging from flounder to stripers. Among those fish is the menhaden, a baitfish that is an essential part of the food chain for game fish and whose population most commissioners (and conservationists) believe may be threatened by overfishing.

[Stuart, whose] district includes the East Coast’s largest menhaden fishing port, seems not so sure.

In Boston in late 2011, the ASMFC commissioners voted overwhelmingly to curtail commercial landings of menhaden by as much as 37 percent over 2010 harvest levels. This marked the first time the ASMFC has voted to decrease the menhaden harvest. Why the change? The commission’s most recent stock assessment found that  menhaden stocks, in steady decline for the past half-century, were now at a historic low, and that although menhaden are apparently producing enough eggs to supplement the stock, those eggs are not becoming juvenile menhaden, much to the consternation of researchers.

Conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy and consortia like the Menhaden Coalition, and the Herring Alliance—as well as groups of recreational anglers like Menhaden Defenders—have for years lobbied for more conservative menhaden harvest levels. They believe that the current commercial harvest levels could push the stock past the point of no return, which would affect countless species of fish and sea birds.

Senator Stuart disagrees: “I think the environmental community has lobbied the ASMFC so much, they have abandoned their own science.”

Stuart defended his proposed legislation, saying, “I drafted my bill to demonstrate to the ASMFC that Virginia will not tolerate ignoring the best available data on menhaden. According to ASMFC’s own science, the coastal population of menhaden is healthy.”

Stuart also believes that “the recent decision by the ASMFC in Boston to curtail menhaden harvest so drastically reveals that some states are cutting back Virginia’s menhaden harvest to bolster their own populations.”

Is Stuart correct in his assertions? And should Virginia leave the ASMFC?

First, the science to which the senator refers may be found in the ASMFC management plan—but it never describes the menhaden stock as “healthy.” And indeed, the stock has never been lower than it is right now. Second, the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act (1993) stipulates that Virginia will still have to abide by the ASMFC’s menhaden management plan even if it withdraws from the commission. Further, should Virginia voluntarily withdraw from the ASMFC, other member states could decide to redistribute Virginia’s harvest quotas among themselves.

Let us assume that the Virginia legislature passes Stuart’s bill into law. What’s next? Initially the ASMFC would undoubtedly attempt to bring Virginia into compliance. And if the Old Dominion refused? The ASMFC could ask the US Secretary of Commerce to shut down the Virginia menhaden fishery completely, spelling disaster for the Commonwealth’s economy and marking the end of Virginia’s commercial menhaden fishery. For obvious reasons, no state has yet withdrawn from the ASMFC.

Without a doubt, Senator Stuart has a vested interest in opposing the ASMFC’s latest moves on menhaden: His district includes Reedville, home to Omega Protein’s East Coast operations. Omega is North America’s largest commercial menhaden harvester. (Editor's Note: Senator Stuart represents the 28th District which, following redistricting in 2011, no longer includes Reedville.) 

It doesn’t follow, however, that Stuart is an enemy of waterway conservation: Rather, Stuart is and has always been an avid sportsman whose actions demonstrate that he cares deeply for Virginia’s natural resources. He recently led the charge, for example, to pass legislation to significantly decrease phosphorus in fertilizers, which fuels the ominous “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay. Indeed, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation honored him as the 2011 Virginia Legislator of the Year in recognition of this work. 

It is never easy to represent conflicting interests, and it’s usually impossible to please all interested parties. Senator Stuart represents a district that cannot be happy about the ASMFC’s latest actions on menhaden. But in this case, it’s hard to see how his proposed legislation can do anything but exacerbate the inevitable pain that Virginia’s commercial menhaden fishery foresees. He could win this battle with his bold volley—but Virginia will end up losing the war.  

—Beau Beasley

Beau Beasley is an award-winning conservation writer and the author of Fly Fishing Virginia and Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

To learn more, read our menhaden blog series.

A Turning Point for Menhaden, Part Four

Video by Chris Moore/CBF Staff.

Just a few weeks ago, in an historic vote, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided it was time to set new standards for how it manages menhaden, an essential fish to the entire coastal ecosystem. But due to overfishing in 32 of the past 54 years, menhaden’s population had fallen to a mere 8 percent of what it once was–its lowest point on record!

After thousands of letters and e-mails (including 1,036 from CBF advocates) as well as comments at public ASMFC hearings, it became clear just how important this fish is not only to our waters, but to the human community it supports.

Bill Goldsborough, CBF’s Director of Fisheries, fought for years for the protection of this fish, which up until now had hardly been managed at all. His persistence was instrumental in bringing about this landmark decision to establish a healthy population of menhaden for all of us. Check out the video above for Goldsborough's reactions to the vote just moments after it happened.

—Emmy Nicklin

Read the full menhaden story. View parts One, Two, and Three of this menhaden blog series.   

Photo of the Week: The Most Important Fish in the Sea

MenhadenPhoto by Justin Benttinen/

Here, Justin Benttinen captures tiny menhaden in an impressionistic sea. In a matter of days, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will meet to discuss the fate of menhaden (AKA the most important fish in the sea). At the end of that meeting, it will adopt an addendum to its menhaden management plan, which will determine new overfishing thresholds and target fishing rates.

Now, more than ever, we need your help. In 32 of the past 54 years, we have overfished menhaden, and its population now stands at its lowest point on record—a mere 8 percent of what it once was!

But, we have an historic opportunity to rebuild the population of this important fish, which represents a critical link in the marine food web of the entire Atlantic coast, especially the Chesapeake Bay. Please write ASMFC today and urge the commission to set new targets that will allow the menhaden population to increase to a point where it can support a fishery and fulfill its vital ecological role. Please submit your letters by 5 p.m. November 2, 2011, in order for them to be considered.

If we don't speak up now, this fish, so critical to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and the human community that it supports, could be lost forever.

—Emmy Nicklin


Do you have a favorite Bay photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send them to CBF's E-Communications Manager, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign],along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. Please also join our Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Flickr group and post your pics to our Facebook page. We look forward to seeing your photos!

A Turning Point for Menhaden, Part Three

JP at hearing2CBF's John Page Williams addressing the crowd at Tuesday night's public hearing on menhaden. Photo by Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff.

“You all are talking about cutting my pay!” Those were the impassioned words from third-generation bait fisherman Capt. Larry Powley at Tuesday night’s public hearing on menhaden in Annapolis, Maryland. Powley is concerned—as many watermen are—that possible changes to the way menhaden are managed will destroy his livelihood and way of life on Hooper’s Island.

In August, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) announced its decision to consider changes to its management plan for the Atlantic menhaden population, which has reached its lowest point on record—a mere 8 percent of what it once was. A keystone species for the entire marine ecosystem, menhaden are often called, “the most important fish in the sea.” As CBF’s Senior Naturalist John Page Williams says, “We are simply not leaving enough menhaden in our coastal waters to sustain the fish and birds that have depended on them for thousands of years.” Not to mention the thousands of water-related jobs up and down the Atlantic coast which depend on the survival of this fish now and for many years to come.

Tuesday night’s meeting was just one of 13 public hearings taking place throughout the next few weeks to solicit comments from communities along the East Coast about what to do about menhaden. The mild October evening had brought together a packed and mixed crowd of suits and sandals alike, eager to voice their thoughts on menhaden overfishing thresholds and fishing rate targets

Though Powley’s concerns are valid, Williams emphasizes that there’s no interest in running anyone out of business, but rather ensuring the sustainability of this incredibly important species, both for us and for the coastal food webs. “What we’re talking about tonight is how to keep the stock from crashing. Today, the coastal stock of Atlantic menhaden is at its lowest level on record . . . A stock collapse is a real possibility. We must allow the Atlantic menhaden stock to rebound, just as we have done over the past 25 years for rockfish and crabs.”

In the end, the menhaden population needs to increase to a point where it can support a fishery and fulfill its vital ecological role. “Must we crash a valuable natural resource before we get religion and respond effectively? Or will we heed the warning signs and back off before a crash?” Williams questions. “The second course is much more responsible and less expensive in the long run, for both the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and us, the human community that it supports.” 

—Emmy Nicklin


Send your comments to ASMFC,, urging the adoption of a new overfishing Threshold Option 2, a level corresponding to 15% of menhaden’s maximum spawning potential (MSP) as well as the adoption of Target Option 3, a fishing level corresponding to 30% MSP, by 5 p.m. November 2, 2011.

View Parts One and Two of this menhaden series. Download Menhaden Testimony 101111 to read John Page Williams' menhaden comments in full. The possible options for targets and thresholds are outlined in Draft Addendum V to the menhaden management plan. To learn more about this important fish and what you can do to save it, please visit our webpage.