It’s a fish that almost never ends up on dinner plates and isn’t widely known among the general public.
That didn’t stop 127,000 people who care deeply about the future of menhaden from writing to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to tell members how they should vote when they meet in Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday to decide how to manage the fishery for the oily, bony fish along the East Coast. The vote could set a future course that dictates who gets to catch menhaden.
The writers included New York chefs who serve striped bass in their restaurants, birders who cherish the osprey nests along the coastlines, and kayak guides who want plentiful menhaden stock to attract the dolphins their clients want to see. The bass, osprey and dolphins all feed on menhaden.
Commercial fisherman who catch menhaden in nets in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic coast also weighed in. Some of the fish are frozen and sold for bait, ending up in lobster and crab pots from Maine to Maryland. Many are processed into fish oils, animal feed and dietary supplements.
“They came from everywhere and from all kinds of people, from all different communities,” said Edward Houde, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Solomons, of the comments mailed and emailed to the organization. “People are concerned and want to make sure that ecosystem is healthy.”
Menhaden thrive in coastal areas from Florida to Maine, including the Chesapeake Bay, and are food for species as diverse as whales and eagles. Currently, the fishery is managed under guidelines designed to keep the population stable. Levels are set that restrict the tons of fish that commercial fishermen can take in one year. Once that limit is caught commercial fishing must stop.
“When we assess that health of the stock we just look at how many menhaden are in the water,” said Megan Ware, fishery management plan coordinator for Atlantic Menhaden for the fisheries commission.
But fisheries scientists, like Houde, argue that the health of the whole ecological system needs to be considered.
Models that he and a group of other scientists have worked on recently show that some species, including striped bass and tuna, might be more abundant if the menhaden population was allowed to grow. Menhaden don’t grow to more than 10 inches long and, like sardines and herring, are a forage fish.
“All these big predator fish and eagles and ospreys all have a high percentage of menhaden in their diets,” Houde said. “People are concerned about the overfishing of menhaden.”
Large quantities of menhaden have been taken from the coastal waters and estuaries along the East Coast since 1850. As a result, Houde said, it’s hard to know whether valued species of fish and birds might become more abundant if menhaden catches were more restricted.
A recently released paper by Houde, Tom Miller at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, and Andre Buchheister, now at Humboldt University, outlines their findings — based on computer modeling — that fishing on menhaden can take a toll on some of the bigger fish, although not bluefish.
Ware said there are several alternative fishing guidelines the commission will vote on that for the first time would begin to regulate menhaden catches based on the needs of the ecosystem.
Conservationists support such a move.
“This is one of the few fish that birds and people don’t have to compete for — as small, inedible, high fat content fish, marine wildlife are menhaden’s only predators,” said David O’Neil, chief conservation officer at the National Audubon Society. “It’s a no-brainer. Leave more menhaden in the ocean for birds and other wildlife that feed on menhaden, and bald eagles, osprey, striped bass, tuna, whales and other wildlife thrive.”
Kate Wilke, a Nature Conservancy fisheries scientist, said her organization supports taking the new approach.
“I think we have made great, great progress in the last 10 years, going from no-limit to then defining a harvest limit in 2012,” she said. “We are hoping to build on that success and now define those harvest limits based on menhadens’ important role in the ecosystem.”
For the commercial fishing industry, though, the jobs that involve processing menhaden are important to preserve. Omega Protein Inc., which has a plant in Reedville, Va. — located on the aptly named Menhaden Road — consumes more than 100,000 tons of the catch each year. That represents nearly three quarters of the total catch of menhaden.
Omega Protein employees sent a petition to the commission earlier this week, urging it to protect the jobs connected to catching and processing menhaden at their plant just off the Chesapeake, south of the Potomac River.
The Houston-based company issued a statement Friday calling for the fisheries commission to maintain current menhaden management measures until more research is done on the fishery. It noted that the fisheries commission’s own menhaden assessments have not found them overfished.
Beyond the decision on how to manage the menhaden, the fisheries commission also will take up how the total allowed catch will be allocated to each state. Because of the large tonnage that goes to Omega Protein, Virginia gets the largest allocation; New Jersey is second and Maryland third.
Maryland watermen’s catch amounts to only 1.67 percent of the entire catch on the East Coast, said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. Watermen working in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay use only pound nets which are set for the season in one location, usually in about 18 feet of water, he said.
Brown said that since Maryland’s total catch is so small — about 2,800 tons — it has no effect on the health of the species.
“What we are afraid of is that we will not get enough quota to fish the whole season,” he said. “We are maintaining. We can survive with what we got now. We can’t stand to have anything more taken away from us.”
Brown, who catches menhaden and striped bass, also known as rockfish, will be at the commission meetings on Monday and Tuesday to see what happens.