Advocates for the health of the Chesapeake Bay and fisheries along the East Coast won a historic victory today in protecting menhaden, a small fish that some call the “most important fish in the sea.”
During a meeting in Boston, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to tighten standards for menhaden fishing. The new standards will likely mean commercial harvests of the runty and oily but ecologically vital fish will be cut by roughly a third from 2010 levels.
However, a final decision on fishing restrictions has not yet been made -- and will require further decisions by the commission, then a vote by the Virginia General Assembly (which has in the past resisted efforts to regulate the East Coast's only remaining industrial menhaden fishing fleet, based in Reedville, Virginia) or action by the federal government.
If limits on catching the fish move ahead, the result will be less overfishing of the menhaden, which are an important source of food for striped bass and other fish, as well as many fish-eating birds, such as loons and osprey. Menhaden have been overfished 32 of the last 54 years, including in 2008, and populations of the fish along the Atlatnic coast have fallen to their lowest level on record.
Most Eastern states, including Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, have banned commercial fishing for menhaden for industrial processing into chicken feed, dietary supplement pills, and other products. Virginia and North Carolina are the only Eastern states that have not banned the industrial fishery.
"All of us in Maryland commend the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which today took historic action to reduce fishing pressure on menhaden," Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley said. "The new, more conservative fishing threshold and target are significant steps in ensuring a sustainable future for menhaden, an essential food source for striped bass, bluefish, dolphins, osprey and bald eagles and other fish and wildlife species."
The importance of the commission’s decision can hardly be overstated. Menhaden is a keystone species along the Atlantic, a foundation of the ecosystem. The small, silvery fish is a preferred food for many prey fish and birds, as well as an important source of bait for crabs and lobsters. Swimming in schools, menhaden also are harvested for fish oil and meal.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other groups have been pushing for smarter management of menhaden for years.
The impact of menhaden population decline has been worrisome to biologists. Historically, 70 percent of the diet of adult striped bass in the Chesapeake was menhaden, but recent studies found menhaden comprised only eight percent of the diet of juvenile stripers. And up to 70 percent of Chesapeake stripers sampled are infected with mycobacteriosis, a stress-related and typically fatal disease. Poor nutrition increases the severity of these infections. Mortality is significantly higher in infected bass than in those without the disease. Striped bass is a prize fish in the recreational fishing industry.
The commission, representing states on the Atlantic Coast, had before it a series of possible new management options. In the end, it voted for the option pushed by CBF and its many Atlantic states partners: setting a harvest limit that will ensure menhaden reproduce to at least 15 percent of its historic spawning potential. Currently, the population is spawning at only half that rate. The commission’s action will give the menhaden population a much better ability to replenish itself.
“Today, our management of menhaden has finally started accounting for menhaden’s critical role,” said Bill Goldsborough, CBF senior fisheries scientist, and a ASMFC commissioner. “We’ve learned from other fisheries, such as striped bass and crab, that easing harvest pressures can dramatically replenish a stock. This decision will spur menhaden abundance and begin the rebuilding process.”
Goldsborough added, however, that more steps remain -- including action in the Virginia General Assembly -- before restrictions on fishing for menhaden are finally in place. "It ain't over," he said. "The fat lady hasn't even warmed up her vocal cords yet."
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo from VIMS)