Little Fish, Big Impact


Menhaden are the fuel of the Bay's food web, providing critical sustenance to other Bay species like rockfish. Graphic courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Small, silvery, and packed with nutritional might, menhaden have long been thought of as "the most important fish in the sea." And the other week, they once again came to the forefront of fisheries management and Chesapeake conservation.

On October 26, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which manages the coast-wide catch of menhaden and 23 other migratory fish species, met in Bar Harbor, Maine, to revisit menhaden's harvest cap for next year

Menhaden are a fundamental link in the Bay's food web, serving as valuable sustenance for striped bass and many other important fish, marine mammal, and seabird species. Their health directly affects the health of the entire ecosystem. Yet the menhaden population has faced a long history of large-scale industrial fishing and historic low abundance in recent years.

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


What happened in October?
ASMFC took up the issue of what the menhaden quota should be for 2017 after delaying the decision at its August meeting. A compromise was reached to increase the current harvest cap by 6.5 percent, bringing the menhaden catch limit up to 200,000 tons. That number was judged to be the middle ground among nine different options considered in August, ranging from keeping the status quo all the way up to increasing the catch limit by 20 percent. This quota is only for one year before the new management plan (or Amendment Three) comes into place in 2018.


What does this mean?

It's disappointing. With menhaden still not abundant throughout their geographic range and continued concerns about recruitment in the Bay, staying the course would have helped ensure a healthier menhaden population for all stakeholders—the reduction industry, bait fishermen, anglers, conservationists, etc.

What's more, we're not being consistent with the objective that the ASMFC has had for 15 years to account for menhaden's ecological role, something the commission is planning to do in 2018 by adopting "Ecological Reference Points" (ERPs) under Amendment Three. (ERPs are guardrails for managing the harvest while leaving enough menhaden in the water for the ecosystem.) The bottom line is there was too much political pressure to have an increase right now.

IStock_000013646856small_osprey & menhaden
A hungry osprey with his menhaden lunch. Photo by iStock.

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 there are not enough 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? 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. It's important to remember that leaving menhaden in the water to be eaten satisfies an important management objective to keep the ecosystem healthy. You get incredible value from leaving these fish in the water.

What's next?
ASMFC will develop a new menhaden management plan (Amendment Three) for 2018 based on public comment from all stakeholders as well as scientific data and expertise.

This new plan will give us ecological reference points, and it will give us a new framework for allocating the menhaden catch quota among the states, among the industries, and so on. Right now it's done by state—each state gets a certain percentage of menhaden catch, and Virginia gets 85 percent out of the entire coast, while some states get less than one percent

One type of ecological reference point that CBF and many other groups support would maintain at least 75 percent of the virgin biomass [how many fish would be in a natural system before any harvesting] in the water for the health of the ecosystem.

The first public comment phase on the new menhaden management plan ends January 4, 2017. Click here to take action now for the Bay and "the most important fish in the sea" before the January 4 deadline!

This year is a big year for you. You're retiring as CBF's Director of Fisheries next month after 38 years and leaving ASMFC after more than 18 years on the commission. What has been the biggest milestone for you, particularly in your time with ASMFC?
Actually getting a quota on menhaden with Amendment Two was the biggest milestone that I was part of at ASMFC. And if Amendment Three proceeds the way it's supposed to, that will probably supersede Amendment Two as a milestone.

Before Amendment Two, there was no limit on the catch of this ecologically critical fish. No limit! And it was the biggest fishery on the East Coast, and annually in the top five nationwide—West Coast, Gulf Coast, Alaska. That's high volume! Getting a quota set at a conservative level—20 percent below what it had been—was probably the biggest milestone for me.

There's been a whole lot more focus on the importance of forage fish in general in recent years, and I think a lot of that derives from the two decades that we've been working on menhaden.

Over the next few weeks, ASMFC is holding public hearings about its revised menhaden management plan. Stand up for this important fish at one of the public hearings in Maryland, Virginia, and other coastal states. Click here for the full list of hearings.

—Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media

Learn more about menhaden and why they are so important at our next Blue Planet Forum.


This Week in the Watershed: A Forgotten Fish

Menhaden photo from EPR
Despite their critical link in the food web, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission raised the menhaden catch quota this week. Photo by CBF Staff.

They might not be a common feature on dinner plates, but menhaden are often called "the most important fish in the sea." A small, oily fish packed with nutritional value, menhaden are a critical link in the marine food web. Valuable fish like rockfish rely heavily on menhaden as do whales, osprey, and other marine mammals and seabirds. Despite their critical role in the Bay's ecology, menhaden face an uncertain future.

In 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission cut the menhaden catch quota by 20 percent. Just last year the quota was raised 10 percent, and this week, another 6.5 percent.

As with all fisheries management, science should be at the foundation in all decision making. And with a fishery as critical as menhaden, managing the long-term sustainability of the species should include considerations for their ecological role in addition to the economic value. With the Atlantic menhaden population at eight percent of historic levels and the science still out on taking their ecological value fully into account, now is not the time to increase the quota even further.

Saving the bay involves not only cleaning the water but ensuring the wildlife that depends on it are thriving. With the full implementation of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, and responsible, science-based fisheries management, we can leave a healthy Chesapeake Bay to future generations.

This Week in the Watershed: An Important Fish, Kicking Cans, and Spooky Forests

  • Advocates for menhaden, often dubbed "the most important fish in the sea," received unwelcome news, when it's quota was increased 6.5 percent. (Bay Journal) Bonus: CBF Statement
  • The push to address stormwater runoff in the Keystone state faces several major roadblocks. (Bay Journal)
  • The controversial Four Seasons development on Maryland's Kent Island is still facing legal resistance. (Star Democrat—MD)
  • We couldn't agree more with this editorial lampooning the decision to kick the can down the road on stormwater pollution reduction efforts in Maryland's Anne Arundel County. (Capital Gazette—MD)
  • Wetland scientists are studying the increasing prevalence of what they call "ghost forests"—forests that have been overtaken by sea level rise. (Daily Press—VA)
  • Pennsylvania has plans for cleaning its rivers and streams, but some are questioning whether they are providing the necessary funding to bring their plans to life. (Lancaster Farming—PA)
  • With millions of dollars spent on stream restoration projects throughout the watershed, some are questioning the efficacy of the investment. (Bay Journal)

What's Happening around the Watershed?

October 29

  • Woodsboro, MD: Help CBF plant over 1,000 trees and shrubs along Israel Creek on a beef cattle farm in Frederick County. Approximately 5,000 feet of stream banks will be planted resulting in six acres of riparian buffer. Israel Creek is in the Monocacy River watershed which flows to the Potomac River then to the Chesapeake Bay. Click here to register!

November 3

  • Easton, MD: Oyster season is here, and whether or not you're a fan of eating the Bay's beloved bivalve, you've probably noticed a growing number of farmed oyster varieties available in local seafood markets and restaurants on the Eastern Shore. There's no denying that oyster farming, also known as "aquaculture," is on the rise in Maryland. Join us for a forum on this rising trend to learn more about oyster aquaculture from experts in the field. The event is free, but click here to register!

November 5

  • Smithsburg, MD: Join CBF at this recently completed stream restoration project on Little Antietam Creek and help us with the final stages of restoring the stream banks and floodplain. Volunteers will install live stakes consisting of willow cuttings as well as native trees and shrubs.  Learn about stream restoration techniques used throughout the region by touring this recently completed project and lend your hand for the final touches. Click here to register!

November 6

  • Annapolis, MD: Join approximately 25,000 runners and walkers crossing the 4.35-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge as part of the third annual Across the Bay 10k. The dual-span bridge doesn’t allow pedestrian traffic at any other time of the year, so this is a unique opportunity—and the view is amazing! CBF is an official charity partner of the Across the Bay 10K, and we are excited to offer Charity Bibs as part of that partnership. It's a get a guaranteed entry into the race and help save the Bay with a donation to CBF! Get your charity bib now!

November 12

  • Virginia Beach, VA: Volunteer with CBF at Calypso Bar & Grill! We will be celebrating our favorite bivalve, the oyster, with an oyster roast. Volunteers are needed to help recycle the oyster shells, pour beverages, and take tickets. A portion of the proceeds will help CBF in its work to save the Bay! To volunteer, please email or call Tanner Council at or 757-622-1964.

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate

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.