In Major Policy Shift, Fisheries Commission Recognizes Value of Menhaden to East Coast Ecosystems

Management of species, including catch limits, will provide for the needs of its predators

In Major Policy Shift, Fisheries Commission Recognizes Value of Menhaden to East Coast Ecosystems
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A humpback whale feeds on menhaden off Rockaway Beach near New York City. Managers have adopted a new way of managing menhaden fishing that accounts for the needs of predators.
Artie Raslich/Getty Images

The regulatory body that sets catch limits for menhaden—the country’s second-most-caught fish—today adopted a modern method for managing this species, which is valued prey to a wide range of wildlife, from striped bass, osprey, and eagles to dolphins and humpback whales.

Menhaden make an outsize contribution to marine ecosystems, and these small fish have long needed more sustainable management. Today, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission addressed that need by unanimously adopting a system under which catch limits on the forage fish will account for the needs of its predators and the broader health of the environment. The East Coast’s largest fishery is now one of the world’s foremost examples of modern, ecosystem-based management in action.

This is a dramatic transformation for management of menhaden, the catch of which has registered in the billions of pounds for decades. Only eight years ago, there was no coastwide catch limit for the species. In recent years, fishery managers focused more on menhaden after observing shifts in some of the species’ predators. First, striped bass, a popular target of recreational anglers, experienced a drop in population. Later, humpback whales returned to the waters off New York to feed on a rebounding menhaden population there, an indication of how of the forage fish’s fate affects the wider ecosystem.

Strong and sustained public support for improving menhaden management

The commission has received hundreds of thousands of public comments over the past few years urging it to set catch limits that would ensure that enough menhaden remained in the water to feed predators and sustain the recreational, commercial, and tourism sectors that depend on these species. Among those calling for conservation were anglers, fisheries scientists, commercial fishermen, coastal businesses, and wildlife advocacy organizations from Maine to Florida. These diverse groups have formed a collective voice for the conservation of Atlantic menhaden and have remained engaged for the years-long process.

In 2017, the commission committed to making a transition to ecosystem-based fisheries management once it had peer-reviewed, menhaden-specific science upon which to base the new system. The method relies on ecological reference points (ERPs), which allow managers to better account for the needs of menhaden’s predators when setting catch limits.

Peer-reviewed science pointed the way forward

As we wrote earlier this year, the shift toward using ERPs will help fishery managers identify a more appropriate target population number for menhaden, as well as a threshold, which is the level that the species must stay above to ensure that it can fulfill its role in the ecosystem. Importantly, this improvement largely did not require scientists to collect new data; instead, they added existing data—for instance, on how much menhaden are eaten by striped bass—to scientific models to generate ERPs. In the longer term, the models can and should be expanded to include other predators that eat menhaden, analysis of where interactions between predators and prey happen, and variation between seasons.

A new fisheries management standard

ERPs orient managers toward protecting and rebuilding menhaden and their predators so that all those species can thrive in good years and avoid crashes in bad years. A healthier, more productive, and more stable food web benefits recreational and commercial fishermen, scuba divers, bird enthusiasts, seafood and fishing businesses, whale watchers, and communities throughout the East Coast. 

The commission has now raised the bar for fisheries management in the U.S. and around the world. By applying the best available science and a groundbreaking ecological model to one of the highest-volume fisheries in the world, commissioners demonstrated that enough knowledge already exists to better protect ecosystems and the economies that rely on them. Moreover, this decision blazes a path for conservation of forage fish, a category often overlooked because it usually isn’t marketed directly to consumers. Large, healthy populations of forage fish help to create a food web that is productive and resilient and can support wildlife, commercial fishing, angling, and ecotourism.

With this big-picture approach, menhaden will be managed more effectively, realistically, and sustainably. The Pew Charitable Trusts joins a wide coalition in applauding the commission for this leap forward in the conservation and management of one of America’s most ecologically and economically valuable marine species.

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.

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