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Ask a Scientist: A Turning Point for Menhaden, Part Two

MenhadenByJustin Photo by Justin Benttinen/ 

Your Turn to Save the Menhaden

A few weeks ago we told you of an historic opportunity to rebuild the menhaden population, commonly referred to as “the most important fish in the sea.” Now, in a continuation of that blog, we delve deeper into why this fish matters, and what we can do now to help save it. Who better to ask than our own Bill Goldsborough, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Fisheries Director.

Why should people care about this fish?
People should care about menhaden because the health of the marine food web depends on this fish. Many of the Bay species that we value very highly—striped bass, osprey, bald eagles—depend on this fish. Furthermore, the disease problem facing striped bass has been linked to the lack of nutritionally rich menhaden available for their food.

What’s happening to menhaden right now?
The latest data paint a bleak picture for menhaden. A new updated scientific assessment of the menhaden population has determined that overfishing has occurred in 32 out of the last 54 years, presenting an historic pattern of overfishing. The ASMFC convened the scientists that did these analyses from among the state and federal agencies it represents, and they are all acknowledged menhaden population experts. In addition, they convened a panel of independent fishery scientists unaffiliated with the commission to review the assessment and make recommendations. This independent panel said that we’re down to 8 percent of what the menhaden population once was and that that’s too low. They said we need to have more conservative reference points—targets for the population level and rate of fishing as well as thresholds for delineating when overfishing is occurring and when the population is overfished—to better protect and build up the stock.

Where does the menhaden catch go?
Right now roughly 80 percent of the catch, or about 150,000 tons of menhaden per year, are caught in the “reduction” fishery, cooked, ground up, and processed into oil and meal to be used for farmed fish and livestock feed, pet food, paints, cosmetics, and dietary supplements. The remaining 20 percent is used for bait in commercial and recreational fisheries.

There’s a certain irony to taking fish from the wild and feeding them to farmed fish. Can you expand on that thought?
Menhaden are a fundamental food for so many different kinds of fish and marine mammals and seabirds . . . to be going out in the wild and catching this important forage fish just to process it and feed it to farmed-raised fish, thereby letting the natural system suffer . . . it’s an outrage really. 

Why are there some people out there who still believe that menhaden are not being overfished?
It’s important in how you word it . . . to say they are being overfished is correct; to say they are overfished is incorrect. These are the most recent scientific findings, but these findings are determined relative to standards that fishery managers adopted years ago. With the tighter standards that scientists are now recommending, the population would most assuredly be classified as overfished and being overfished. After all, there’s no dispute that the population is at its lowest point on record.

Why now? Why is it important now for people to take action?
The fact that this critically important fish’s population is at its lowest point on record is a startling wake-up call. As a result, ASMFC is considering changing its management plan for Atlantic menhaden by tightening the standards used to manage menhaden fishing. ASMFC is currently seeking public comment on possible new standards or “reference points” that outline desirable population levels and allowable fishing rates. Once reference points are established, ASMFC will develop fishing rules, such as catch limits, fishing seasons, and area closures, designed to achieve population targets and avoid overfishing.

What should people say in their public comments to ASMFC?
CBF is recommending option F15% as the overfishing threshold, which ensures that 15 percent of the original, unfished menhaden population is left intact (instead of the 8 percent it is currently). CBF is also recommending a fishing rate target of at least F30%, as an appropriate interim target.

I urge people to tell ASMFC that menhaden are very important in their ecological role, and it’s simply outrageous how low we’ve allowed the population to get. The rapid decline of menhaden creates huge problems for the entire ecosystem. People should tell ASMFC they want new reference points for menhaden that are sufficiently conservative and will turn around this decline and increase the population. Furthermore, the population should be allowed to increase to a point where menhaden can support a fishery and fulfill their vital ecological role.

—Emmy Nicklin


View Part One of this series here. 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. 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.



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Hello to all!!
I have seen so many photographs captured by Justin Benttinen about nature and beauty of nature, they are pretty awesome. We can't imagine his creative knowledge to capture photographs. Look at the above picture of group of fishes, it is very difficult to capture for a normal photographer. Informative post.. ThankQ

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Wowwww!!! looks like a bunch of jelly fishes are going together.. May I know the date in which this photo was captured?

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