Big Turnout for Little Menhaden

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has seen a lot in its 70-year history but nothing quite like this. More than 128,000 people flooded the commission's inboxes with postcards and emails last month, a new record for public comment. Scientists, small business owners, nature lovers, and anglers sent letters and spoke out at public hearings. And it was all about a fish that almost no one ever eats—Atlantic menhaden. 

I've written about menhaden before; small, bony, and oily, it isn't much of a meal for humans. But it's a favorite food for ocean wildlife including striped bass and bluefish, weakfish and whales, tuna and ospreys. Menhaden form a critical part of the ocean food web and that makes overfishing them a serious threat.


The industrial fishing fleet takes menhaden by the hundreds of millions in what's called a “reduction” fishery: they're “reduced” by grinding and boiling into a variety of products including fertilizer and feed for livestock and aquaculture. It's the East Coast's largest fishery by weight, yet it is largely unregulated. There is still no limit on how many menhaden can be caught at sea. Over the past three decades, the Atlantic menhaden population has plunged 90 percent to historically low levels.

Menhaden form a critical part of the ocean food web and that makes overfishing them a serious threat.-Lee Crockett, director, U.S. Ocean Conservation

Once you know these facts you can understand the huge show of concern about this little fish and why so many people from so many walks of life wrote to the ASMFC: 

  • 94 leading scientists wrote because they know how valuable forage fish are to the health of the oceans.
  • Groups of birders and whale watchers wrote because they know menhaden help feed the animals they love.
  • Thousands of recreational anglers and small business owners wrote because of a simple fact: big fish need little ones like menhaden for food.

A recent study of “forage fish” found they are worth twice as much in the water—where they feed more valuable species—as they are in the nets of a reduction industry. But even that estimate is low because it did not include the eye-popping economic impact of recreational fishing. On the Atlantic coast alone, recreational anglers add nearly $11 billion a year to the U.S. economy while supporting more than 90,000 jobs. As one group of business owners wrote to the commission, “Simply put, menhaden help support our businesses, and are a major economic driver in our local economies.” 

The ASMFC meets December 14 in Baltimore to enact a plan that will meet its goal of ending overfishing and managing menhaden “as a critical ecosystem component.” Unfortunately, some have presented this as a choice between the environment and jobs. But wise management policies do not pit conservation against commerce; rather, they recognize that a vibrant coastal economy needs a healthy ocean ecosystem. That is why Pew is calling on the commission to cut the menhaden catch in half and enact the first coast-wide limit on the fishery. And we are not alone. Tens of thousands of people agree that keeping more of these little fish in the water brings the biggest benefits to us all. Please join us and let the commissioners know you want them to act.

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