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Ask a Scientist: a Turning Point for Menhaden? Part One

Menhaden photo
Photo courtesy of Bill Goldsborough/CBF Staff

They’ve been called “the most important fish in the sea.” Small, silvery, and packed with nutritional value, menhaden are filter feeders that consume plankton and in turn are food for striped bass and other important fish, as well as marine mammals and sea birds. They are in effect a critical link in the marine food web.  

But in 32 of the past 54 years, menhaden have been overfished, and they are now at their lowest level on record. Most of the harvest today is taken by Omega Protein, Inc.—a corporation based in Houston, Texas, which capitalizes off of menhaden’s nutritional value by running a fish reduction plant out of small-town Reedville, Virginia. Omega Protein’s catch makes up 80 percent of the East Coast catch, resulting in more than 150,000 tons per year of menhaden, which are then cooked, ground up, processed into oil and meal to be used for fish and livestock feed, pet food, paints, cosmetics, and dietary supplements.

“This is enough to make Reedville, Virginia, annually one of the top three ports in the whole country, including Alaska, in terms of tonnage landed,” says Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Fisheries Director Bill Goldsborough. “And most of these ecologically critical fish are removed from Chesapeake Bay waters and the ocean waters just outside the Bay’s mouth.”

But just last week, in an historic first step to protect the ever-diminishing menhaden population, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted overwhelmingly to adopt a draft addendum to the Fishery Management Plan, which would allow public comment over the next two months on new reference points for managing the fishery. Specifically, the board is considering a full range of targets for rebuilding the menhaden population, potentially to as much as 40 percent of its former size (it is now at about eight percent).

“This is a landmark thing for menhaden. This is what we’ve been fighting for for years,” Goldsborough says.

It was a long, uphill battle getting to this groundbreaking vote. The current menhaden management plan was adopted in 2001 with high-minded language about rebuilding the menhaden population, but since then the population has only trended downward. Three years ago, the Menhaden Board first passed a motion to develop new targets. Then in May 2010, the board was briefed on a new menhaden stock assessment, which scientifically evaluated the fish’s population and found that, indeed, overfishing occurred in 32 of the last 54 years, presenting an overwhelming pattern of overfishing. Furthermore, the menhaden was at its lowest level on record—only eight percent of its original size! With a panel of independent scientists warning that the population level was too low to be sustainable, setting new reference points that provide better protection for menhaden was recommended. The board responded by voting unanimously at its May 2010 meeting and again at its August 2010 meeting to adopt new reference points, which include targets for the menhaden population level and rate of fishing as well as thresholds for delineating when overfishing was occurring and when the population was overfished. It has taken the process until now, a year later, for proposals for new targets and thresholds to be presented for the board’s consideration.    

Now, after the Menhaden Board voted last week 15 to 1 to 1 in favor of a draft plan addendum with a range of possible targets for the fish’s population level (20 percent, 30 percent, and 40 percent), we have an historic opportunity to rebuild the population of this critical fish. Over the next two months the public will have the chance to let the ASMFC know how it feels about these options and the way forward for menhaden. At its November meeting, the Menhaden Board will adopt the final addendum and begin working on management measures (fishing quotas, size limits, seasons, etc.) needed to achieve the new targets.

—Bill Goldsborough and Emmy Nicklin

View Part Two of this menhaden series here.

More information on the public comment process, including meeting dates and locations will be posted to: Click on "Public Input."

Read the ASMFC "Draft Addendum V to Amendment 1 to the Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan for Public Comment."

Send your comments to by 5 p.m. on November 2, 2011.


Where the Menhaden Catch Is Coming From

MenhadenMap_en (2)
Though only representing the menhaden catch for the year 2005, this pattern is very typical of the catch year after year, with most of it coming from Chesapeake waters and ocean waters nearby.


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Jim Chrzanowski

Omega has been freely sucking at the Chesapeakes teet for far too long. Tell them to look elsewhere and lets just stop menhaden catches for a few years so the population can rebound.

Robert Howe

As a recreational fisherman in the Chesapeake I fully support reducing the commercial take of menhaden. I have seen the menhaden fleets circle the fish and kill and leave to rot on the surface tens of thousands of fish besides what they take into their holds for delivery to Reedville.

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