The Little Fish That Could—Maybe It Will

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

Over the past several months, conservationists, fishermen, and the public have been writing to fishery managers about how to save Atlantic menhaden (also called bunker) – arguably one of the most important fish in the sea. And this week, they scored a victory.

Illustration of Menhaden

For decades, fishermen on the U.S. east coast have been allowed to catch unlimited amounts of this small, but important, fish. As a result, Atlantic menhaden populations have greatly declined – by around 90 percent. Captain Dale Tripp, a longtime Cape Cod fisherman, said “When we first started fishing for menhaden it was not a problem to go out with just a grappling hook and catch 20 in 20 minutes,” but “Now, you can’t go out with a gill net and catch 20 in two hours.”

The decline has been blamed on the “reduction fishery,” which catches the majority of Atlantic menhaden each year.  They grind them up and use them for fish-oil dietary supplements, fertilizers, and animal feed.

Photo: Boat Catching Menhaden

The menhaden declines affect marine ecosystems and fisheries. Commercial fishermen use Atlantic menhaden for bait. While recreational fishermen rely on abundant menhaden populations to feed the fish they catch– striped bass, weakfish, and bluefish. Seabirds and marine mammals also rely on menhaden for food.

To protect this vital fish and rebuild their populations, conservation groups, like the Herring Alliance, have been arguing for drastic reductions in Atlantic menhaden catches.

However, fishermen involved in the reduction fishery claim menhaden are not really declining. And have argued that catch reductions would be damaging to the industry.

But many other commercial and recreational fishermen have been standing alongside conservationists. One striped bass fishermen from Maryland said “It is absolutely crumbling, what’s happening to the fish. Anybody who thinks it’s a better use to grind them up, rather than have them swimming in the Chesapeake Bay, has to explain to me why that’s a good idea.” Many in the public (around 126,000 people) asked managers to protect menhaden too.

Well, on Friday, came the culmination of the last few months of pleading efforts to save Atlantic menhaden. These various groups gathered at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission board meeting to hear what managers would do. And to the delight of many, their outcries were heard! Managers voted to set a catch limit for the Atlantic menhaden fishery, for the first time, beginning in 2013. And reduce current catches by 20%. Each east coast state will receive a portion of the allowed catch limit. Once a state reaches their specified catch limit, they will have to close their fishery. In addition, managers also voted to establish new target abundance goals for Atlantic menhaden, which consider the ecosystem services the species provides.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Chair, Louis Daniel, said “It was incumbent upon the Board to reduce catches in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the resource and the fisheries that depend on it.”

The catch reductions were not as large as conservationists were hoping for. But it was still a historic day for Atlantic menhaden. The fishery will finally be regulated! And people are finally giving this small fish the attention it deserves. Scientists will next assess Atlantic menhaden in 2014. After that, managers will reevaluate the catch limits.

Friday’s decision offers hope that schools of Atlantic menhaden will one day be abundant again!



Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.