OCEAN CITY — Federal fisheries management officials last week took an important first step in protecting the Atlantic menhaden, a vital link in the food chain along the Atlantic coast and the Chesapeake Bay, when they compromised on a 20-percent catch reduction.
After years of debate about the need for protections for the Atlantic menhaden, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (AMFC) voted 13-3 to reduce the catch limit on the small, silvery species by 20 percent in 2013 with the promise of exploring further catch reductions in the future. The ASMFC decision is being hailed as victory for the menhaden, which has seen its population levels decline steadily over the years largely due to overfishing and the lack of any management plan for the species.
The menhaden are a vital link in the larger food chain along the Atlantic coast and in the Chesapeake Bay. They are a main food source for striped bass, or rockfish, along with ospreys, eagles and many other fish and birds. The menhaden pile up along the coast at different times of the year to spawn and their young enter estuaries such as the Chesapeake Bay at different times to grow to maturity before returning to the sea.
They are the most heavily harvested fish on the East Coast and are used as bait to catch other fish including lobsters and crabs. Menhaden are also caught for processing into certain animal feeds and their oily nature makes them a popular addition to health supplements. For nearly a decade, conservation groups and fishery management agencies have pushed for some catch limit on the once abundant menhaden as their numbers continued to decline.
Some groups called for a moratorium on the menhaden, or catch reductions at around 50 percent. Commercial fishermen acknowledged the need to afford some protections to the important food fish, but urged further study and more complete data collection before adopting such stringent reductions. Last week’s decision by ASMFC to adopt a 20-percent catch reduction represents a compromise of sorts and a first step in what could be a larger management plan in the future.
“Today, the most important fish in the sea- the Atlantic menhaden- received the recognition it deserves,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley last week. “I want to commend the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for agreeing to reduce the harvest of Atlantic menhaden by 20 percent in 2013. After overfishing Atlantic menhaden for 52 of the past 54 years, resulting in historical low levels of abundance, overfishing will end and Atlantic menhaden will be given an opportunity to rebuild its population.”
O’Malley said the 20-percent catch reduction finally offers some protection for the vital link in the ecosystem along Maryland’s coast and in the Chesapeake.
“Today’s actions by ASMFC go beyond menhaden,” he said. “Maryland’s many other fish and marine mammals- the striped bass, bluefish, dolphins, ospreys and bald eagles- will also benefit as they use Atlantic menhaden as a primary food source.”
Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler has been a strong advocate for adopting catch limits and other protections for the Atlantic menhaden and testified at various ASMFC meetings in advance of last week’s decision.
“These little fish are a big deal to the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “The commission has taken the important first steps in the right direction over the past year and now it’s time to demonstrate a commitment to getting the job done.”