Menhaden, which anglers lovingly refer to as "bunkers," are important to the Bay's ecosystem as a rich and highly relied upon food source for iconic Chesapeake creatures like rockfish (striped bass), dolphins, and ospreys, but their numbers in the Bay have sunk alarmingly low over the past twenty-plus years. The downturn has damaged both the Bay ecosystem and the watermen who depend on the fish for bait.
Restoring menhaden numbers will benefit both ecological and economic interests throughout the Bay region. A healthy stock in the future will lead to increased harvest opportunities for the commercial fisheries that depend on this vital species. These commercial fisheries include
- the bait fishery, where menhaden are used as bait in the hundreds of thousands of crab pots set every day up and down the Chesapeake;
- and the industrial reduction fishery based in Reedville, Virginia, operated by Omega Protein, which processes menhaden into fishmeal and fish oil.
In May of 2015, to ensure the menhaden stock fulfills both its ecological and economic roles, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) initiated development of Amendment 3 to the fisheries' existing management plan. New to this version of the management plan was the consideration of ecosystem (or ecological) reference points (ERPs) to manage the fishery, and changes to the way the catch is allocated between the states. In addition, it updated a suite of management regulations, including those for quota transfers, quota rollovers, and the Chesapeake Bay reduction fishery cap.
The commission adopted the Amendment in November 2017. However, it maintained the management program’s single-species biological reference points (catch levels sustainable for the fishery itself), holding off on the ERPs until a review and adoption of menhaden-specific ecological reference points could occur as part of the 2019 benchmark stock assessment process.The ERPs were finally adopted in August 2020.
CBF believes the following issues in Amendment 3 were the most important for ensuring a robust population of this important forage fish.
ASMFC, through past stock assessment and commission actions, identified the development of ERPs as a high priority for Atlantic menhaden management. Menhaden serve an important role in the marine ecosystem as prey for a variety of species including large fish, birds, and marine mammals. As a result, changes in the abundance of menhaden may impact the abundance and diversity of predator populations, particularly if the availability of other prey is limited. Ecological reference points provide a method to assess the status of menhaden within the broad ecosystem context.
Amendment 3 prohits quota rollovers. There is no reason to implement a quota rollover program for any segment of the menhaden fishery. Menhaden are available to the various commercial fisheries throughout much of the year, leaving ample time for the various fisheries to catch their quotas. In addition, due to the importance of menhaden to the Chesapeake Bay and coastal ecosystems, rolling quota over to the next year can inflate the catch in that year beyond the level determined to be ecologically sustainable.
ASMFC adopted a revised total allowable catch (TAC) that is based on state quotas. Each jurisdiction was allocated a 0.5 percent fixed minimum quota. The remainder of the TAC was allocated based on a three-year average of historic landings from 2009-2011.
Chesapeake Bay Reduction Fishery Cap
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest nursey for menhaden on the Atlantic Coast. Thus, the Chesapeake Bay Reduction Fishery Cap remains an essential fisheries management tool for minimizing localized depletion. To help rebuild the population of menhaden in the Bay, Amendment 3 decreased the cap from 87,126 metric tons (mt) to 51,000 mt and prohibited cap rollovers.
For more information or questions, contact Chris Moore, Senior Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, at 757-644-4109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.