New fishery management benchmarks for Atlantic menhaden, often called “the most important fish in the sea,” were established today in an effort to increase its population to four times the current size. The measure was adopted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the interstate body that governs the menhaden fishery, after an intensive two-month campaign led by the Pew Environment Group.
“Today's vote is a welcome step for a fish that hasn't caught a break since Dwight Eisenhower was president,” said Peter Baker, director of Northeast Fisheries at the Pew Environment Group. “Scientists have warned that having too few menhaden in the water could result in disastrous impacts on the fish and wildlife that eat them.”
During its meeting today, the ASMFC agreed with its scientific advisors and set more conservative fishing standards to help menhaden stocks recover. The fishery, the largest on the East Coast by weight, has exceeded the designated “safe fishing target” every year since 1960. As a result, the population is at less than 10 percent of historic levels.
“In looking at studies over the past few decades, we see declining amounts of menhaden in the diets of striped bass, ospreys, bluefish, and weakfish,” said Holly Binns, director of Southeast Fish Conservation at the Pew Environment Group. “Saltwater fishing, whale watching, and bird watching—which rely on species that eat menhaden—generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year on the East Coast. The new benchmarks will help sustain our coastal economies and communities.”
About three-quarters of the Atlantic menhaden catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding ocean waters. Most of these fish are ground up and reduced to fish meal and oil for use as dietary supplements, fertilizer, farm animal feed, and pet food.
“More and more, we see that menhaden, herring, and other so-called forage fish—the species that the larger, better-known fish eat—are an irreplaceable link in the ocean food chain,” said Baker. “Today's decision marks a watershed moment, where the ASMFC embraced the challenge of managing the entire ecosystem, not just one species. We look forward to working with the Commission to establish new rules that enforce these targets.”