In early February, the regulatory body that sets catch limits for menhaden—the country’s second-most-caught fish—will consider adopting a new way to manage the species, which is valued prey to wildlife. This is the first of three articles explaining why menhaden, and this potentially revolutionary decision, matter.
It’s a common scene along the U.S. East and Gulf coasts: a still patch of ocean, yards from the shore, broken suddenly by a roiling commotion. It’s a school of menhaden—a critical but little-known forage fish—darting and jumping to escape predators from below as seabirds seize the opportunity to dive from above.
Menhaden may be the most important fish you’ve never heard about. They’re not only prey for iconic wildlife—from humpback whales and dolphins to striped bass and ospreys—but they also are the East and Gulf coasts’ most-caught fish—and the second-highest catch in the U.S. behind Alaskan pollock.
In the coming weeks, the management body overseeing Atlantic menhaden will decide whether to adopt a more modern management system, which would have long-term consequences for the health of this species, and much of the marine ecosystem.
Commercial fishermen have pursued menhaden in earnest since the early 1800s, largely for the same reason they hunted whales: as a source for lamp oil. Menhaden also were ground up to fertilize agricultural fields, a precursor to popular 20th-century uses as food for livestock, farmed fish, and pets and as essential ingredients in oil-based paints, cosmetics, fish oil supplements, and health foods. As overfishing reduced populations of other forage fish such as mackerel and herring, menhaden became increasingly important bait for lobster and crab fisheries.
Commercial fishing for menhaden spiked after World War II, when the U.S. applied wartime technological advances to a peacetime fishing boom. Intense fishing led to population lows in the 1960s and 1970s. And even though the numbers increased in the early 1970s, fishing began to concentrate on larger, older fish with high reproductive potential—a subset that is important for sustaining the population. That shift probably contributed to a slide in the menhaden population, which, despite periodic and short-lived rises, has hovered around 100 billion since the late 1990s.
Menhaden numbers are subject to fluctuations because the species is low on the food web and is more sensitive than other fish to ocean and environmental changes that affect the availability of plankton—menhaden’s main food source. This vulnerability means that managers must be careful to limit intense fishing during years when menhaden numbers are particularly low. Further, the species’ once-wide geographic range from Nova Scotia to Florida has narrowed to an area mostly around the Chesapeake Bay and mid-Atlantic states, and several of its predators—such as bluefish, striped bass, and weakfish—are struggling, probably in part because menhaden are not as plentiful as they could be.
For the first roughly two centuries of intensive menhaden fishing on the East Coast, coastwide catch limits didn’t exist. Over the past century, some states banned commercial fishing for menhaden, while others did nothing. In the 1980s, with the menhaden population and range shrinking, commercial fishing became increasingly concentrated, and striped bass, which prefer menhaden as prey, suffered significant declines. This led to a moratorium on fishing for striped bass, curtailing an economically and culturally important activity. The dearth of menhaden drove predators to target other species, such as juvenile weakfish—a popular gamefish once it reaches adulthood. This underscored why menhaden matter: Their scarcity can also threaten other fish, including prized predators.
The menhaden and striped bass declines prompted the first interstate catch limit on menhaden in 2006. However, that measure applied only to the Chesapeake Bay, menhaden’s largest nursery. After the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission—the body that manages menhaden catch—in 2013 finally adopted a 25 percent reduction from recent catch levels for the entire East Coast, menhaden numbers increased noticeably for several years. Since that decision, many fisheries scientists, conservation organizations, and coastal businesses as well as hundreds of thousands of individuals have called for the commission to ensure that enough menhaden stay in the water to feed wildlife and support commercial and recreational fishing, ecotourism such as whale- and bird-watching, and other industries that boost coastal economies.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has long recognized that menhaden play a critical role in the wider marine ecosystem. For the past several years, the commission has resisted pressure to increase catch levels and promoted a new way to set catch limits—one that would ensure that important predators have enough to eat.
Last week, the commission released new peer-reviewed models and formulas—called ecological reference points—that can be used when managing menhaden fishing. These reference points integrate estimates of how much menhaden some key predators need and set catch limits that provide for those needs. On Feb. 5, the commission will consider adopting them. Doing so would complete a remarkable transformation from no coastwide catch limits a decade ago to arguably the nation’s premier ecosystem-based fisheries management system.
Our next analysis will explore how this approach differs from the old way of managing fish as single, isolated populations.
Joseph Gordon is a project director and Aaron Kornbluth is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to protect marine life on the U.S. East Coast.