Atlantic Menhaden

The Chesapeake's Unsung Hero

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They've been called "the most important fish in the sea."

Small, silvery, and packed with nutritional value, menhaden are filter feeders that consume plankton and in turn are food for striped bass, bluefish, gray trout (weakfish),  and other important fish, as well as marine mammals and sea birds like gannets, ospreys, and loons. Though many people have never even heard of this boney, oily, unappetizing fish (also known as bunker or pogy), they are a critical link in the marine food web. This little unsung hero converts the energy stored in algae and the tiny, shrimplike plankton that they eat into high-energy, high-protein food for many of our favorite predators.  

The Chesapeake Bay has historically been the most important nursery area for Atlantic menhaden throughout its range from Maine to Florida. From spring through fall, schools of juveniles and adults graze plankton all over the Bay and its tidal rivers.

For hundreds of years, menhaden have been a vital part of our natural and national history. American Indians used menhaden as fertilizer for corn; the early settlers processed them for lamp oil.

Then, in the late 19th century, the fishery peaked as menhaden oil replaced whale oil for lighting, and the menhaden population began to collapse.

In the past century, all but one state gradually banned the large scale fishing of this important fish. Today, Virginia is the only state that allows "reduction" (industrial) menhaden fishing, which takes about 80 percent of the catch coastwide. The oil and fish meal from the catch goes into paints, cosmetics, animal feeds, and human diet supplements. This reduction fishery removes approximately 80,000 tons of menhaden from the Virginia part of the Bay each year.

The other 20 percent of the catch is caught and sold as bait to watermen seeking blue crabs and lobster, as well as for recreational fishing. Virginia and New Jersey are the leading states in the bait industry.

What is the Concern?

The number of menhaden available (“abundance”) is key for predators like striped bass and osprey.  Unfortunately, the number of young menhaden produced in the Bay each year (“recruitment”) has been poor for the last 20 years. This low number is of persistent concern and has been linked to an increase in chronic disease  in Chesapeake striped bass.

Under federal law, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) oversees management of commercially and recreationally valuable fish species that migrate between the thirteen states along the coast. In 2006 the annual industrial catch in the Chesapeake was capped based on concerns about malnutrition in striped bass.

In 2006 the annual industrial catch in the Chesapeake was capped based on concerns about malnutrition in striped bass and the need to protect the Bay ecosystem from localized depletion. This included a cap on the reduction harvest. In November 2011, the ASMFC decided, in a historic vote, to set new standards for menhaden management.
 
Then in 2012, after thousands of letters and e-mails (including 1,036 from CBF advocates) as well as comments at public ASMFC hearings urging greater conservation, the ASMFC approved a new management regime, called Amendment 2, to allow the menhaden population to rebuild. Amendment 2 set a coast-wide quota, known as the Total Allowable Catch (TAC), for menhaden--the first quota ever for the menhaden fishery--that was divvied up among the Atlantic states. It also extended the 2006 Chesapeake Bay reduction harvest cap. This vote was a significant management action on behalf of Atlantic menhaden and it showed just how important this fish is to the marine ecosystem and to other valuable fisheries.

What's Being Done Now?

The latest population assessment was completed in 2017, and the ASMFC is evaluating how to apply it to management of the fishery. Some advocates for the fishing industry are urging an increase in the quota, arguing that the assessment shows a healthy population. CBF and others are urging caution and more thorough analysis to ensure there are enough menhaden to serve as prey for other species in the coastal ecosystem.

While the menhaden population is recovering, it is still a long way from being healthy and certainly a long way from fulfilling all the forage needs of striped bass and other predators. The new assessment only shows the status of the menhaden population independent of other species and not its contribution to the food web.

It is now up to the ASMFC is to follow through on its longstanding commitment and adopt guidelines for the fishery that account for menhaden's crucial role in the ecosystem ("ecological reference points"). Only with these tools will it be able to consider changing catch levels without impacting other species that depend on menhaden as food.

ASMFC is considering significant revisions to its current fisheries management plan for menhaden and has issued Draft Amendment 3. Amendment 3 proposes to do something revolutionary: manage a forage fish species for its role in the ecosystem, ensuring that all menhaden predators, from fish to birds to marine mammals, have a seat at the dinner table along with the various menhaden fisheries. Amendment 3 includes options for how these important ecological reference points (ERPs) are implemented, how the menhaden catch is managed, and possible changes to the Chesapeake Bay fishery cap. Check our fact sheet for the issues CBF believes are most important to ensure a more robust population of this important forage fish in the Bay.

Podcast

From the Blog

  • Atlantic Menhaden Need More Protection

    September 20, 2017

    We are all bound together in a mind-bogglingly complex web of life, in which what happens to one species affects multiple others. Yet up to now, we have governed many of our natural resources in a vacuum called single-species management.

  • This Week in the Watershed: Menhaden’s Moment

    September 15, 2017

    As we’ve written before, menhaden might not be a common feature on dinner plates, but there’s a reason they’re often called "the most important fish in the sea."

  • Little Fish, Big Impact

    November 16, 2016

    Small, silvery, and packed with nutritional might, menhaden have long been thought of as "the most important fish in the sea."

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