After years of work, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is set to vote Aug. 5 on a brighter future for millions of menhaden and the many species that prey on these small baitfish. If the commission decides as expected, the diverse array of people who depend on healthy coastal environments for their livelihoods will benefit as well.
The commission will vote on whether to transition to ecosystem-based fisheries management, in which species are managed as part of an interconnected food web, not as species that exist in isolation from one another—an approach that has had myriad negative impacts across marine environments for decades. The commission has signaled that it will approve this shift for menhaden, the largest fishery by volume on the East Coast, a move that would acknowledge the fish’s vital role and the ripple effects it has on other species and the ecosystem as a whole.
As we wrote earlier this year, the commission agreed in February to consider adopting an ecosystem-based approach to menhaden at its May meeting. But at that session, commissioners requested further technical analysis to better understand the range of menhaden management options, pushing the long-awaited decision to August. Now, the Atlantic seaboard’s most-caught fish by volume is on the cusp of winning the recognition it deserves as the bedrock of the East Coast’s marine ecosystem—and of being managed with that value in mind.
The effort to reform menhaden management dates to the 1990s, when the struggling population of a key predator—striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay—raised concern among recreational and commercial fishermen. Since then, a diverse coalition of organizations along the East Coast, including ecotourism and fishing-related businesses, have rallied in support of better menhaden management. Leading up to its interim decision in November 2017, the commission received public comments from 118 scientists and over 150,000 individuals in support of ecosystem-based management of menhaden. This month, the commission also heard from a large number of wildlife and conservation organizations. Broad, sustained calls for menhaden conservation have provided the fuel for this transition.
Over the past few years, the commission’s scientists evaluated a new menhaden population assessment and five computer models that it could use to set catch limits that would leave enough of these forage fish in the water to feed predators. The Pew Charitable Trusts encourages the commission to choose the NWACS-MICE model, which has emerged as the best option for achieving the commission’s multiple goals for managing Atlantic menhaden and is endorsed by menhaden experts and many in the conservation community. The commission should make it clear that it intends to improve the model over time as science evolves, and commit to setting catch limits that help the population increase, provide enough food for striped bass—a key predator—and return menhaden to a wider geographic range along the Atlantic coast.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is set to distinguish itself as a national and even global leader with smart, modern fisheries management. By adopting an ecosystem focus for such a huge fishery—and for one of the most ecologically and economically important forage fish in the country—the commission is setting an example that other fisheries management bodies can and should follow.
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.