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Menhaden, The Little Fish That Could—Won’t

Menhaden, the little fish that could, can’t. I mean, they can but they won’t. Because as of a few days ago, they’re not allowed to. This week they got another bad break from fisheries managers. Let me explain. The fish is called “the most important fish in the sea” because it feeds so many whales,...

Menhaden in New York waters. Photo: Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

Menhaden, the little fish that could, can’t. I mean, they can but they won’t. Because as of a few days ago, they’re not allowed to. This week they got another bad break from fisheries managers. Let me explain.

The fish is called “the most important fish in the sea” because it feeds so many whales, dolphins, shearwaters, herons, terns, gannets, bluefish, striped bass, tunas, et cetera, et cetera all along the U.S. Atlantic coast.

They’d been deeply depleted. But recently they’ve been recovering, spectacularly, since fisheries managers applied modest catch cuts five years ago. The one commercial fishing company that catches billions of them was pressing to undo the catch reduction.

We’d earlier asked you to write to the fisheries agency, telling them you want the recovery to continue, you want no catch increase, and you want a shift in management so that fisheries managers must consider natural predators before they set catch amounts. Many thousands of you responded well. The fisheries agency did not.

The fisheries agency is called the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. It’s made up of state-agency fisheries managers from the states along the U.S. East Coast.

Menhaden off Montauk, New York. Photo: Carl Safina

So what do the fisheries managers manage? They manage to ignore their own success. Five years ago they put a cap on the catch for the first time. That cap was 12 percent less than the catch had been. That modest reduction was very successful in prompting a recovery so noticeable that, as one fisherman put it, “Even a blind man can see it.” But here’s what the managers just managed to do: they just increased the fishing limit by 8 percent. That is an increase of 216,000 metric tons of a fish that weighs about half a pound. We are talking hundreds of millions of fish. That increase wipes out most of the previous cut, and jeopardizes the whole recovery, and takes millions and millions of fish out of the mouths of whales, dolphins, seabirds, fin-fishes, and sharks.

Not to learn from one’s mistakes is unwise. Failing to learn from one’s success takes truly determined backwardness.

They manage to vote against their own states’ interests. Even though each state gets a vote, Virginia gets 80 percent of the catch. Why? Because that’s how it’s been. And the fish they catch there are mostly juveniles, weighing only about a quarter of a pound. They catch them in the major nursery of striped bass, the most sought-after game and food fish of the mid-Atlantic states. Those billions of young fish get pulverized into farm-animal feeds, fertilizers, and oils for industrial manufacture of things like paint. (The industry was pressing for an increase of 20 percent! That should not surprise anyone, because for decades they’ve been the problem. They always want only one thing: more.)

The managers managed to ignore 158,000 public comments that overwhelmingly asked that the managers choose one of the options that their own scientists had developed. The managers managed to ignore 150 people who showed up in person to press that case. The option the people wanted would have considered the needs of all the wildlife that eat menhaden when determining how many fish humans could catch.

The managers managed to do one good thing. They cut the amount of fish allowed to be caught in the Chesapeake by nearly half. So that’s good; the increased catch will not come from Chesapeake Bay, which is the primary coast-wide nursery for menhaden and striped bass and other species.

Thanks to all of you who sent your letters to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in support of greater protection for Atlantic menhaden.

The fight to implement intelligent ecological reference points continues! We will update you on when the next opportunity for comment arises. Thank you for your continued support of healthy oceans. Eventually our attempts will succeed and we will manage to manage the managers. After all, 158,000 commenters can’t be dismissed this easily. We’ll be back!

Menhaden off Montauk, New York. Photo: Carl Safina

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Meet the Author

Carl Safina
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.