Commercial fishing boats pull up a net chock-full of menhaden. Photo by John Surrick/CBF Staff.
The Chesapeake's Unsung Hero
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 and other important fish, as well as marine mammals and sea birds. They are in effect a critical link in the marine food web. But in 32 of the past 54 years (through 2008), menhaden were overfished, and they are now at their lowest level on record.
Many people have never even heard of this boney, oily, unappetizing fish (also known as bunker or pogy). But without this little unsung hero the Bay's ecosystem would likely collapse. The Bay's other valuable fish like striped bass (rockfish), bluefish, and summer flounder rely heavily on menhaden for nutrition as do sea turtles, osprey, and other fish-eating marine mammals and seabirds.
Further, the Chesapeake Bay is the most important nursery area for Atlantic menhaden. From spring through fall, juveniles as well as adults would be found throughout the entire Bay when the population was healthy.
Why Are they Disappearing?
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 menhaden population began to collapse.
In the past century, all but one state gradually banned the large scale fishing of this important fish; today, only Virginia allows industrial menhaden fishing. Approximately 80,000 tons of menhaden are removed from the Virginia part of the Bay each year in this fishery.
Taking too many young fish both greatly diminishes the spawning potential of the population and reduces their availability to predators. The declining number of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay has been a concern for many years and has been linked to the chronic disease problem facing Chesapeake striped bass.
By 2006, the annual industrial catch in the Chesapeake was capped. Then in May 2010, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) received an alarming scientific report on the status of Atlantic menhaden—confirmation that the species had been systematically overfished for 32 of the previous 54 years. The population was reported to be at its lowest level on record. The analysis was peer reviewed by independent scientists and remains the best available science on Atlantic menhaden.
What's Being Done?
The fact that this critically important fish's population is at its lowest point on record is a startling wake-up call. So in November of 2011, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided in an historic vote to set new standards for how it manages menhaden.
After thousands of letters and e-mails (including 1,036 from CBF advocates) as well as comments at public ASMFC hearings urging the implementation of these new standards (see sidebar), ASMFC voted to adopt new threshold and target fishing rates to allow the menhaden population to increase to a point where it can support a fishery and fulfill its vital ecological role.
This vote was the most significant management action ever taken for Atlantic menhaden and shows just how important this fish is to the marine ecosystem and to other valuable fisheries. In December, ASMFC met again and adopted new fishing guidelines, such as catch quotas, that reduce the coast-wide menhaden catch by 20 percent.