Fisheries commission rejects plan to change menhaden management strategy

Next year, commercial fishermen will be able to harvest more of a key species from the Atlantic Ocean.

But in a controversial step, regulators at the same time cut back the amount of menhaden that can come from the Chesapeake Bay.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made the decisions after rejecting calls to overhaul the way it manages the population of menhaden, a source of food for everything from striped bass to dolphins to osprey.

Groups including environmentalists, bird watchers, kayakers and chefs had been calling for the commission to account for menhaden’s important ecological role at the bottom of the food chain when setting catch limits.

Instead, the commission will for now continue to set the limits in a way that simply ensures the menhaden population remains stable.

During a two-day meeting at a Linthicum hotel, the commission decided to limit the Atlantic menhaden fishery to 216,000 metric tons in 2018 and 2019, an 8 percent increase over the current cap.

But within that, the Chesapeake Bay catch will be cut back by more than 40 percent, from 87,216 metric tons to 51,000 metric tons.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials expressed disappointment that the commission did not adopt a proposal to factor larger ecological effects into menhaden management decisions. But they cheered the decision to reduce harvesting in the bay.

Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist for the foundation, said the group will continue pressing for “a strong ecosystem-based approach.”

“Menhaden are a crucial food for everything from striped bass to osprey to humpback whales,” he said. “That’s why we must look at the big picture when managing the menhaden fishery.”

Most of the menhaden caught in the Chesapeake go to a major processing facility in Virginia operated by Omega Protein, which uses the fish to produce food ingredients, dietary supplements and animal feed.

Omega spokesman Ben Landry called the restriction on the bay’s menhaden harvest “a 100 percent political measure” that “unfairly and punitively” affects the company.

Maryland watermen, who catch menhaden for use as bait, are not affected by the harvest cutback in the Chesapeake, as their catch is counted separately from Omega’s.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said the broader harvest increase across the Atlantic will help the fishery while staying well below a level that could threaten menhaden reproduction.

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