The Good and The Bad for Atlantic Menhaden

Co-authored by Elizabeth Brown

On May 5th the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met to make pivotal decisions about the management of Atlantic Menhaden – arguably one of the most important fish in the sea.

Two keys decisions were up for discussion:

1.) What to set the Atlantic Menhaden catch limit at. Or, in other words, how many Menhaden should the fishery be allowed to take from the ocean.

2.) Whether managers should take a “big picture” or ecosystem-based approach to managing Atlantic menhaden. This means taking into account the important ecological role Menhaden play in the ocean as a key food source for many species.

The Menhaden fishing industry was pushing for an increase to the catch limit put in place back in 2012 to rebuild this species. Their reasoning being that the latest population assessment for Menhaden indicates it is in a better state than it was a few years ago, so they should be allowed to take more fish from the sea. The Menhaden fishery is the largest on the U.S. East Coast. The majority of Menhaden (80%) are ground up for use in fish oil dietary supplements, fertilizers, and animal feed. This industry is controlled by a single company, Omega Protein. The remaining 20% of the Menhaden catch is used by commercial fishermen for bait.

Ocean conservationists, recreational anglers, and eco-tourism businesses were more concerned about whether managers would leave enough Menhaden in the ocean to support its vast array of predators. Menhaden provide food for several important recreational and commercial fish, such as striped bass, weakfish, cod, and bluefin tuna, seabirds like osprey and eagles, and whales. Menhaden, along with other small prey fish, are the glue that holds the ocean ecosystem together. More than 10,000 people wrote to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission prior to the meeting pushing for a big picture approach, urging them to not increase the Menhaden catch limit until they account for the needs of its predators.

Humpback Whale Foraging on Menhaden just off New York City. Photo by Artie Raslich, Gotham Whale.
Humpback Whale Foraging on Menhaden just off New York City. Photo by Artie Raslich, Gotham Whale.

So what was the outcome?

Well, let’s start with the good news. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to amend the way it currently manages Atlantic Menhaden and committed to taking a big picture approach. Over the next two years they will determine how many Menhaden need to be left in the ocean to maintain the populations of larger fish, seabirds, and whales, so that they can take this into account when setting the catch limit. [Currently managers only consider how many Menhaden are needed to sustain its population]. This is an extraordinary step forward and we should celebrate!

But before we pop the corks, it’s important to note that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission decided that in the meantime they would give in to fishing industry pressure and increase the catch limit. They voted to increase the catch limit by 10% for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. To put this into context, two years ago managers decreased the catch limit by 20%. So they gave the fishery half of this back. This was a shortsighted decision for several reasons.

  • First, while the latest population assessment indicates Menhaden biomass (the weight of all fish) has increased, it also indicates Menhaden abundance (the number of fish) remains low relative to historic levels. Biomass has increased while abundance remains low because the proportion of old, big fish in the population has increased in recent years. But the amount of fish surviving past year 1 has been low, so there are few young, small fish. This is highly concerning and is reason to remain cautious about the current health of the Menhaden population.
  • Second, it puts the needs of Menhaden’s predators on the back-burner for another two years. It is the abundance or number of fish that matters most to predators, and as noted above, abundance is low. Additionally, fishing for Menhaden is highly concentrated in the Chesapeake Bay and Mid-Atlantic region, where Menhaden is perhaps needed the most to support declining species like Striped Bass. Back in 2001, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission set a goal to “protect and maintain the important ecological role Atlantic Menhaden play along the coast.” It will take until 2017 for this to come to fruition.
  • Third, the increased Menhaden catch limit really only helps a single company, Omega Protein—they are currently allocated 80% of the catch. Whereas, maintaining the current catch limit would have left more Menhaden in the ocean, which benefits many fisheries and businesses along the Atlantic coast (e.g. striped bass fisheries, tuna fisheries, whale watching businesses).
Striped Bass gobbling up a Menhaden. Photo by John McMurray.
Striped Bass gobbling up a Menhaden. Photo by John McMurray.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s decision to increase the Atlantic Menhaden catch limit was frankly irresponsible. Thankfully, this should be the last time managers put the needs of the Menhaden fishing industry over everything else. Assuming the Commission follows through on its decision to move to a big-picture management approach, future management decisions will finally consider the needs of the fish, seabirds, and whales that rely on Menhaden, and the fisheries and businesses these species support. We look forward to that day.

Changing Planet

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, CNN.com 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.