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 menhaden numbers on the East Coast are near the lowest 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 dowhales, osprey, and other fish-eating marine mammals and seabirds.
Further, the Chesapeake Bay has historically been 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 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, only Virginia 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, human diet supplements, and both crab and fish bait. The other 20 percent is caught and sold as bait for blue crabs, lobster and for recreational fishing. Virginia and New Jersey are the leading states in the bait industry. The fishery removes approximately 80,000 tons of menhaden from the Virginia part of the Bay each year.
Biomass is a measure of weight, in metric tons.
Abundance is a measure of quantity, in billions.
The latest scientific assessment of the population shows the total "biomass" (the total weight of the fish stock) at a reasonable level due to the belief there are more, older (and therefore larger) menhaden in northern waters than previously thought. But it also shows that the total number of menhaden is low relative to historic patterns. This is important, because it is the number of prey available (abundance) that is key for predators like striped bass and osprey. Reinforcing this concern is the fact that 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 the chronic disease problem facing Chesapeake striped bass.
By 2006, the annual industrial catch in the Chesapeake was capped based on concerns about striped bass. 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.
The fact that this critically important fish's population was at its lowest point on record was a startling wake-up call. So in November of 2011, the ASMFC decided, in an historic vote, to set new standards for how it manages the menhaden fishery.
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 voted to adopt new threshold and target fishing rates to allow the menhaden population to increase to a point where it could support a fishery and fulfill its vital ecological role.
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.
After a year of preparation and technical analysis the ASMFC met again in December 2012, to adopt a new management plan for applying the new standards. The primary tool of the plan, known as Amendment 2, was a total allowable catch for the coast that was divided up into individual quotas for each state. The quotas were 20 percent lower than recent average catches in each state.
What's Being Done Now?
The latest population assessment was completed in early 2015, 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 forage for other species in the coastal ecosystem.
While the population does appear in better condition than previously thought, 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 robustness within the food web.
The challenge of 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 the other species that depend on menhaden as food.