Atlantic menhaden, frequently dubbed “the most important fish in the sea” because of their critical ecological role, have been declining in numbers in the Bay and along the Atlantic coast for many years. In fact, stocks of menhaden along the East Coast have plummeted to their lowest levels on record, or about 8 percent of what they would be if there was no pressure from fishing. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has concluded that menhaden are currently overfished and have been so for 32 of the past 54 years.
The decline has commission and other marine scientists worried because menhaden are a major source of food for other Bay creatures, including larger finfish, sea birds, ospreys, bald eagles, and marine mammals. The little fish also help maintain a balanced marine ecosystem by consuming immense quantities of plankton.
Menhaden play an important commercial role as well. They are the object of a major “reduction” fishery in Reedville, Va., that catches and processes the fish into oil and meal, making Reedville one of the largest fish landing ports (by weight) in the United States. Menhaden are also the bait of choice for most commercial crabbers. And as prey fish, menhaden nourish Chesapeake Bay striped bass, bluefish, summer flounder, and other popular fish targeted by commercial and recreational fishing industries.
Clearly, something must be done to better protect menhaden, a natural resource important to the East Coast, the Chesapeake Bay, and Bay state economies. And to that end, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is now considering new rules to ensure long-term protection of this invaluable fish. The commission is taking public comment through November 16, both in writing (send to email@example.com or click here) and at a series of public meetings in Virginia and Maryland (click here for meeting schedule).
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is pushing for fair and reasonable limits to rebuild the menhaden population and boost harvests for watermen, anglers, and wildlife:
• A 25 percent reduction of the menhaden catch as a first step toward eliminating overfishing.
• A reduced fishing rate to achieve the target level within five years.
• To avoid undue harm to local fishermen catching menhaden for bait, the allocation scheme should split the new quota 70:30 between the industrial fishery and the local bait fishery.
The deadline for letting your voice be heard is November 16. Tell the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to enact rules without delay to save menhaden and protect the Bay.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation