Big Moment for Little Menhaden

Interstate Commission to Vote on Protection for "Most Important Fish in the Sea"

On Dec. 14 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is set to cast crucial votes on the future of the Atlantic menhaden, sometimes called the most important fish in the sea. 

Menhaden form a critical link in the ocean food web by scooping up tiny plankton, turning it into fat and protein, and making that energy available to a variety of marine life. Game fish such as striped bass and blue fish, marine mammals including whales and dolphins, and seabirds such as osprey and terns all depend on menhaden for food. 

That food web is threatened as Atlantic menhaden populations have plummeted 90 percent over the past three decades, leaving them at a historic low level of abundance. The ASMFC has determined that Atlantic menhaden are experiencing overfishing. Just one company takes 80 percent of the catch, then renders the fish into fertilizer, feed for farm animals, and oil for diet supplements. By weight, this is the largest fishery on the East Coast. The sharp decline in menhaden undermines both the ecology and economy of coastal states, with billions of dollars in economic activity in the balance.

Following the Menhaden Money

Scientists at the Lenfest Ocean Program studied the role and value of forage fish such as menhaden and found that these little animals are worth twice as much in the water as they are in the net. Even that estimate is low because it does not include the value of recreational fishing. 

According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, recreational anglers took more than 43 million fishing trips along the Atlantic coast in 2009, contributing nearly $11 billion in spending to the U.S. economy while supporting over 90,000 jobs. The big fish those boaters chase need little fish like menhaden.

The Need for Action

Last year, the ASMFC pledged in principle to reduce the menhaden catch and rebuild the population. But there is still no plan in place to make that happen and still no binding limit on the amount of menhaden that can be caught at sea. The Dec. 14 vote should fulfill the commission’s immediate goals to end overfishing and “manage Atlantic menhaden not only as a fishery but as a critical ecosystem component.” 

Pew and other stakeholders from the conservation, science, and recreational fishing communities are urging commissioners to implement the first coastwide catch limit on the fishery and an immediate 50 percent reduction in the menhaden harvest. Pew also asks the ASMFC to commit to rebuilding the population within five years. 

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