A panel of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates all inshore fishing from Maine to Florida, voted to seek public comment on whether to slash the commercial catch of menhaden by up to 50 percent, though it left the door open to making smaller cuts.
Menhaden also serve as food for many birds and other fish, including striped bass, highly prized by recreational anglers and commercial fishermen alike.
Conservationists and recreational fishermen have been warning for years that menhaden are being depleted, and officials began drafting plans to cut the harvest after scientists warned three years ago that the population had dwindled to 8 percent of its historic levels.
The fisheries panel decided last fall to move ahead with cutting back the menhaden harvest, but the plan came in for extensive modification Wednesday. The panel ruled out slashing the catch by 75 percent — one of several changes made because scientific advisers developed serious concerns about the computer model used to assess the depletion of the stock.
"We're certain we're overfishing, [but] how much, we don't have a clue," said Louis B. Daniel, a North Carolina fisheries regulator who is chairman of the interstate commission's board overseeing menhaden.
The panel rejected suggestions by Virginia representatives to delay cuts intended to reduce overfishing. But members expressed their own desire to delay more extensive harvest cutbacks until a new scientific review is performed, perhaps three years from now.
The move worried commercial fishermen. Russell Dize, a Tilghman Island waterman who sits on the commission, said given the uncertainties, he's anxious to limit cutbacks as much as possible because many crabbers rely on menhaden for bait.
"We're flying blind," he said of the catch reduction plan. "This is guesswork."
Jimmy Kellum of Weems, Va., who catches menhaden for crab bait and for sale to Omega, accused the panel of rushing to judgment on his livelihood. He warned that some of the plan's provisions could well shutter the menhaden processing plant in Reedville.
"You might as well bulldoze Omega down," he said.
But William Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who also sits on the panel, said the science is solid enough to say menhaden are being overfished, and so any reduction is a move in the right direction.
"The stock is at its lowest point on record," he said.
The commission will hold a series of public hearings, including one in Maryland, with a final decision on how much to cut, and how to distribute the economic pain, by mid-December. Final action had earlier been planned in October.
"Instead of waiting for [another] study to do anything, we feel like we need to move forward, to do something," Daniel said.