May 6, 2010
New Data Show Atlantic Menhaden at Historic Low
Scientific report reveals need to better protect critical fish
Menhaden are small, inedible fish vital to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem as filter-feeders and as food for larger fish, birds, and dolphins.
Atlantic menhaden are at an all-time low. Independent experts have recommended increasing protections for them, and the Atlantinc States Marine Fisheries Commission is beginning the process to take action to do that.
Find out more about the risk to our menhaden fishery. Read the February 11, 2010, article in Time magazine, "The Trouble With Fish Oil."
(ALEXANDRIA, VA.)—The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) received a comprehensive scientific report yesterday that describes a long-running pattern of overfishing and historic low levels of the population of Atlantic menhaden, a small but important fish found in schools up and down the East Coast. An independent panel of experts has endorsed the findings, and the Commission directed its technical advisors to recommend actions to address the problem.
Menhaden, once dubbed "the most important fish in the sea," are essential food for many marine fish, mammals, and birds, including striped bass.
"This report changes the landscape for the management of this ecologically critical species," said Bill Goldsborough, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) Director of Fisheries Programs and an ASMFC commissioner. "It has now been confirmed that menhaden have been systematically overfished for the last 50 years and are now at historic low numbers."
The report, known as a "population assessment," was prepared by ASMFC and member state and federal fisheries experts and peer-reviewed by an independent international panel. It uses mathematical models to describe the condition of the menhaden population, includes estimates of the rate of fishing and the spawning potential of the population, and compares them to previously adopted target levels.
The fishing rate in 2008 was just below the point that would have been judged "overfishing," and the spawning was above the point that would have designated the population as "overfished." However, the analyses revealed that the fishing rate has routinely exceeded the overfishing level during its history and has only hit the target level once in 54 years. Further, the panel of independent experts found that the target levels themselves were too liberal and recommended changing them. They also determined that the spawning potential in recent years was less than one tenth what it would be without fishing and judged that to be too low.
"Vested interests will probably try to 'cherry pick' the science and say there is no problem with the menhaden population, but that is dead wrong," Goldsborough said. "Atlantic menhaden are at an all-time low, independent experts have recommended increasing protections for them, and the ASMFC is beginning the process to take action to do that."
For the first time ever, the assessment, which is undertaken every three years, incorporated estimates of the consumption of menhaden by striped bass, bluefish and weakfish, three fish species that depend on menhaden as food. It appears that including this "ecological" consideration, as scientists, fishermen, and conservationists have long called for, was key to unveiling the unhealthy status of the menhaden population. In addition, estimates have not yet been made to determine impact of many other fish, birds, and marine mammals that consume menhaden.
"By this assessment and its response, the Commission has begun to recognize the critical role that menhaden play in our coastal food web and take steps to better protect this important species," Goldsborough said. "The science is clearly saying the coastal menhaden population needs help. It is critical that management decisions be based upon science, not politics."
The Commission hopes to receive recommendations from its technical staff by its August meeting. Any measures taken by ASMFC on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia coastal waters must also be adopted by the Virginia General Assembly, which manages menhaden in the Commonwealth. When the General Assembly is not in session, Virginia's governor can also act by proclamation to comply with ASMFC measures.
The declining number of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay has been the focus of concern for many years, as the largest menhaden fishery on the East Coast, Omega Protein Corp., is based in Reedville, Va. Omega Protein's operation there nets between 85,000 and 90,000 tons of menhaden from the Bay each year, with a similar amount caught outside the Bay, ranking Reedville second only to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in U.S. fish landings. Because of overfishing concerns, ASMFC capped the Bay's menhaden catch in 2006 at 109,020 metric tons.