The Most Important Fish in the Sea

The tiny Atlantic menhaden, often called "the most important fish in the sea," plays an essential role in marine ecosystems from Maine to Florida. The fish is a food source for wildlife such as whales, dolphins, ospreys and eagles, as well as valuable fish species like tuna, cod, striped bass and tarpon.

The population of Atlantic menhaden surviving to one year has plummeted to less than 10 percent of historic levels and are now at a record low point. Despite this, hundreds of millions of menhaden are still hauled in and ground up, removed from their ecosystem each year, mostly to be used in fertilizer, pet food, feed for agricultural animals and farm-raised fish, and as dietary supplements for people.

By weight, more menhaden are caught than any other fish along the Eastern seaboard. A single company operates a fleet that each year scoops up about three-quarters of the entire East Coast catch - more than 410 million pounds annually. Most of that catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay, an important habitat for juvenile menhaden.

Scientists suspect that the ecological impacts of dwindling menhaden may be widespread. Studies of osprey and striped bass have revealed that menhaden has declined as a part of the diet of these predators. Striped bass are showing marked signs of stress, malnutrition, and disease. The shortage threatens the East Coast's marine food web and could cripple commercial and sport fishing industries. Striped bass fishing alone generates $6.9 billion and 68,000 jobs for the commercial and recreational fishing industries on the East Coast.

Despite its documented impact, menhaden fishing continues at levels that are destructive to the ocean ecosystem. Safe fishing targets have been exceeded every year but one since 1955. As a result, people who value our oceans, concerned scientists, and Pew called for a plan to conserve the last remaining menhaden.

In Nov. 2011, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made a significant step in the right direction by voting to increase the menhaden population to four times the current size.

Our Goals

Pew is working with fishermen, scientists, conservationists, and others to restore Atlantic menhaden populations while there is still time.

In November, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will meet to discuss the issue. The commission - comprising state lawmakers, environmental agency workers, fishermen, industry representatives, and federal officials - manages fishing policies in coastal waters of the 15 Atlantic states.

Independent scientists have told commissioners that more menhaden must be left in the water to replenish severely depleted populations at a much faster rate. But commissioners are also considering proposals inconsistent with the best available science, including no action at all.

To make sure we have a healthy marine environment, Pew and its allies are calling for:

  • Immediate action to rebuild the menhaden population—delaying and maintaining the status quo have been tried, have failed, and are not scientifically defensible.
  • Management measures that adhere to the best scientific guidance and allow menhaden stocks to rebuild to at least four times their current size.
  • An action plan to give fishery managers the tools they need to ensure successful rebuilding, including consideration of a coastwide catch limit.

Commercial fishing should not jeopardize the health of marine ecosystems, recreational fishing opportunities, or public resources. Pew's focus on sustainability, when successful, will have lasting benefits on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast.