ALEXANDRIA, VA. — — East Coast fisheries regulators agreed Tuesday to allow a modest boost in the catch of Atlantic menhaden because scientists now believe the little oily fish on which so many other species depend are not as scarce as previously thought.
The decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission comes 21/2 years after the interstate panel ordered commercial harvests slashed by 20 percent in response to scientific warnings that menhaden had been fished to a historic low, threatening other species, including Maryland's state fish, the striped bass.
The nearly unanimous vote to lift the catch cap by 10 percent represents a compromise between commercial fishermen, who contend that they can safely harvest many more, and conservationists, who remain worried that there still are not enough menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay to sustain striped bass, known to many as rockfish.
"We're heading in the right direction," said Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, who asserted that there are plenty of menhaden in the bay.
David Sikorski, an Ellicott City angler and a leader of the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, said that while recreational fishermen thought it was too soon to raise the cap, they were glad the commission pledged to develop new limits based on how many menhaden need to be left for other fish to eat.
The most heavily caught fish on the East Coast, menhaden are harvested mainly for processing into animal feed and health supplements. Roughly 80 percent of the coastal catch is taken by a seven-vessel fleet owned by Omega Protein Inc. that operates out of Reedville, Va. Menhaden are also netted in Maryland for use as bait to catch crabs, eels and other fish.
But menhaden have a relatively poorly understood role as a prime food source for many other fish and birds. Conservationists have long argued that the menhaden catch ought to be regulated by that ecological importance, not to maximize how many commercial fishermen can take. They note that the fisheries commission recently curtailed the catch of striped bass, prized by commercial and recreational fishermen alike, amid indications that the bay population of the fish is suffering from a bacterial infection linked to not having enough to eat.
The commission, which governs fishing in coastal waters from Maine to Florida, had called for another scientific look at menhaden in the wake of the harvest cut imposed in 2013, which provoked complaints from commercial fishermen. Omega said it was forced to idle two of its vessels and lay off 45 workers. Maryland watermen and other fishermen said the reduced catch drove up bait prices, affecting their livelihood.
Scientists reported this year that they found that menhaden were not overfished, contrary to the earlier assessment. That drew calls from commercial fishing interests to relax limits. But commission member William Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, cautioned that while the new study found more menhaden along the coast, it estimated that they were less abundant in the bay. He suggested that the lack of menhaden might be behind declines in other species such as weakfish.
"Let's take the good news about increases and [refill] the food web that's been waiting a long time," he said.
Calling menhaden the "backbone" of fisheries along the East Coast, North Carolina's marine fisheries director, Louis B. Daniel III, proposed leaving the cap as is until more is known about how many menhaden are needed to sustain other fish populations. But other regulators, including Maryland natural resources officials, said some increase was warranted by the new study.
The commission turned aside a proposal to raise the cap 30 percent over the next two years, with members voicing unease over the unresolved ecological question. The panel opted for the 10 percent increase, allowing nearly 188,000 metric tons to be taken annually. That limit would remain in effect through 2016 as scientists develop recommendations on regulating harvests to ensure that enough menhaden remain as forage for other fish.
Regulators also pledged to review how the catch quota is divided, with an eye toward ensuring that bait fishermen get a bigger share.
Monty Deihl, Omega's vice president of operations, said he was "a little disappointed" that the approved catch increase was not larger. He noted that scientists had suggested that more than 200,000 metric tons could be taken without any danger of depleting the fish. Even so, Deihl said the increase would enable the company to rehire perhaps two dozen workers and return an eighth vessel to its fleet.
"I'm glad to see science carry the day," said Robert Vanasse, spokesman for the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, representing Omega and related businesses.
Conservationists also chose to look on the bright side.
Joseph Gordon, manager of northeast U.S. oceans for the Pew Charitable Trusts, called it "a historic day" that East Coast fisheries regulators had committed to managing any fishery for its ecological rather than purely commercial value. He predicted that such an approach ultimately would "provide benefits for fish and fishermen up and down the coast."