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, ASMFC capped the annual industrial catch in the Chesapeake 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.
The latest population assessment was completed in 2017. 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.
In November 2017, the ASMFC approved Amendment 3 with the following actions, which will guide management of the fishery through 2019:
- Decreased the reduction fishery harvest cap in the Chesapeake Bay by 41.5 percent, to 51,000 metric tons, protecting important nursery habitat;
- Increased the coastwide menhaden catch limit for 2018 by eight percent, from 200,000 metric tons to 216,000 metric tons, lower than some calls for much higher limits;
- Prohibited quota rollovers that would otherwise allow unfilled yearly quotas to be caught the following year, potentially inflating the catch to unsustainable levels, and;
- Rejected putting in place interim conservation measures that would have better accounted for menhaden's role in the food chain, known as ecological reference points.
Three of these four decisions mark significant victories for menhaden conservation. CBF and other environmental groups were disappointed that the Commission will not immediately adopt catch limits that would take into account menhaden's role in the food chain (ecological reference points). Read CBF's statement. The Commission argued that the guidelines being considered were based on other species in other locations and has decided to wait to move forward until technical work groups have finished developing ecosystem-based models specifically for menhaden. That effort is expected to be completed in 2019.
The only way to make sure we have a healthy ecosystem is by taking a look at the big picture when managing the menhaden fishery. CBF will continue to advocate for implementing a strong ecosystem-based approach for the menhaden catch as soon as possible.