Largest Fishery in Eastern U.S. Gets a Break


An important fish for the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem is getting more protection under a new target set today at a meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).

Menhaden, rich in healthy oils, are used for dietary supplements as well as for fertilizer and animal feed. The decision to lower the allowable catch by 37% is being driven by recent overfishing and recognition of the ecological role of menhaden. It's seen as a step toward ecosystem-based fisheries management.

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) are small fish in the herring family, which filter-feed on phytoplankton and live at the base of the food web. Historically they were an important source of food for striped bass, osprey, and other predators. But the amount of menhaden available for wildlife has decreased as humans took more. Roughly 200,000 metric tons are caught each year, mostly in Chesapeake Bay by a company called Omega Protein.

An assessment last year by the ASMFC advisory panel determined that menhaden were being overfished, which meant that the commission was required to take action. The commission has also asked a technical committee to devise a strategy to preserve the ecological role of menhaden.

Environmentalists and scientists have lobbied ASMFC to lower the catch significantly, and today the commission did so. It raised the target level for the amount of fish that must remain in the ocean (called the maximum spawning potential) from 8% to 30%. So while people will still get the lion's share, there will be more menhaden for the rest of the ecosystem.

"Today's decision marks a watershed moment, where the ASMFC embraced the challenge of managing the entire ecosystem, not just one species," said Peter Baker, director of Northeast Fisheries Program at the Pew Environment Group in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Commission to establish new rules that enforce these targets."