In a move hailed by conservationists, East Coast regulators ordered Friday a 20 percent reduction in the commercial catch of Atlantic menhaden, despite warnings that the cutback would cost some fishermen their jobs and may affect crabbers in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, meeting before a packed ballroom of partisans in a Southeast Baltimore hotel, ended years of debate over whether the fish were in trouble and voted overwhelmingly for the first-ever coastwide limit on the ecologically and economically important species. The lopsided 13-3 vote represented a compromise between appeals for a much steeper cutback in the catch and pleas to go easy until further study could determine how big a cut is needed.
"It will definitely end overfishing and will allow the fishery to start to rebuild," Tom O'Connell, Maryland's fisheries director, said of the catch limit set by the panel, which would be 20 percent below the average harvest over the past three years.
Though conservationists, recreational anglers and many scientists had argued for deeper cuts, many praised the action as a good first step.
"This is an historical victory for recreational anglers, conservation-minded citizens and the most important fish in the sea — menhaden," said Tony Friedrich, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland. "For the first time ever, the Atlantic menhaden fishery is finally being managed."
Others were more muted in their praise. "It's a good start, but it's a gamble," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But a spokesman for Omega Protein Inc., which accounts for 80 percent of the coastwide catch, said the company likely would have to lay off 15 or more of its 300-member workforce in Reedville, Va., where it operates a menhaden processing plant and an eight-vessel fishing fleet.
The most heavily harvested fish on the East Coast, menhaden are caught for processing into animal feed and health supplements, and for use as bait in catching other fish, including crabs and lobsters. The oily little fish also happens to be a main food source for many other fish and birds, including striped bass and ospreys. Although the Chesapeake Bay catch has been capped for a few years, there was no limit on the coast.
The commission's action comes two years after its scientific advisers warned that the coastal menhaden population had declined to 8 percent of historic levels and had suffered from overfishing over most of the past half-century.
While conservationists and anglers had argued for cuts of 25 percent or 50 percent or even for a moratorium, commercial fishing interests questioned the commission's science and urged that cuts be delayed or at least minimized until more study could be done to verify the condition of the fishery.
Busloads of recreational anglers and environmentalists, and of Omega workers, came to demonstrate support for their sides in the debate.
Virginia representatives on the commission, pointing to the potential economic harm of steep cuts, argued for limiting the catch reductions to 10 percent or 15 percent until a more comprehensive study could be completed in two years.
But most commission members were unwilling to wait.
"We're overfished; we're overfishing. … If we don't do something, it's likely the long-term viability of that fishery is going to go away," said Louis Daniel, North Carolina's fisheries director and chairman of the commission.
The vote marks the culmination of years of campaigning and lobbying to limit a largely unregulated fishery. Maryland officials, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, helped lead the effort.
"After a decade of efforts on several levels we made positive steps to get this fishery under control," said Dave Smith, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association.
Virginia officials did succeed in thwarting a bid to shift the burden of the harvest reductions onto Omega, as some officials proposed giving bait fishermen a bigger share of the allowable catch. About 20 percent of all menhaden caught along the coast are used to catch blue crabs, lobsters and other fish.
Robert Brown, representing the Maryland Watermen's Association, warned before the vote that steep cuts would be "devastating" to the bay's crabbing industry, increasing their costs and possibly limiting their catch.
But others argued it would be unfair not to have all menhaden fishermen share in the cut. While the cutback likely will inflict significant economic impacts on some fishermen, Maryland's O'Connell said proponents believe the cutbacks will lead to an eventual rebound in fish and harvest.