Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Making the Most of the Most Important Fish – It’s time to modernize management of Atlantic menhaden

A striped bass chasing menhaden. Image via Pew Charitable Trusts.

This post was originally featured on The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Fisheries managers for the Atlantic Coast states face an important decision May 5 about what’s sometimes called the most important fish in the sea: Atlantic menhaden. Officials could increase the allowable catch to appease the East Coast’s largest fishing industry. Or they could begin to manage this forage species in a way that protects fish, seabirds, and whales, as well as the interests of the people who care about and depend on those animals from Florida to Maine.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is under pressure from the menhaden fishing industry to raise the catch quota put in place in 2012. Some menhaden are used for bait, but roughly 80 percent of the catch is allocated to a single company that pulverizes and renders the fish into animal feed and oil. The industry points to signs of improvement in a menhaden stock assessment released in January as evidence to support an increase in the catch.

But menhaden matter as more than just ingredients in industrial products; they are an immensely valuable public resource. Schools of menhaden form a crucial part of the coastal food web as the fish gulp plankton, composed of tiny plants and animals, and turn it into fat and protein that other animals then consume. An array of wildlife, including striped bass, humpback whales, and ospreys, thrives when menhaden are plentiful and suffers when they are not.

Unfortunately, the proposals to increase the menhaden quota do not take into account the needs of these predators. Allowing hundreds of millions of menhaden to be taken from the ocean without understanding the ecological impact would be risky and could undermine conservation efforts for many species. There’s a safer way to proceed.

More than a decade ago, the commissioners set a goal to “protect and maintain the important ecological role Atlantic menhaden play along the coast.” Now they have the opportunity to do just that, by making sure the catch limit for 2015 also accounts for the menhaden that marine predators rely on. The commissioners could also initiate an amendment to their management plan for Atlantic menhaden in order to bring a modern, big-picture approach to future decisions about this fish and its place in the ocean food web.

Appropriately set population targets would make sure that those that prey on menhaden have plenty to eat.



Although the most recent assessment of menhaden offered some good news, it raised concerns in other aspects. It indicated that the total biomass (the estimated combined weight of all fish) has increased, but also found that the actual abundance (the estimated number of fish) remains near historic lows. The menhaden population is still in need of conservation and has not recovered throughout its historic range from Maine to Florida.

The continuing lack of abundance is arguably more critical for predators such as striped bass, a fish that’s highly prized by anglers but declining in numbers. The commissioners recently made a difficult decision to reduce the striped bass catch in order to address this coast-wide problem. These and other important predator fish need abundant food if they are going to recover and thrive.

This gallery of images gives an idea of what we can expect to see when we realize an ample supply of menhaden in the water: humpback whales in New York’s waters, striped bass on fishermen’s lines, and ospreys and bald eagles feasting in bays. These are more than just pretty pictures. They are snapshots of a healthy ecosystem that supports coastal residents and businesses such as charter boat captains and ecotourism operators.

I hope the commissioners keep that vision of the future in mind when they vote May 5.


One Response to Making the Most of the Most Important Fish – It’s time to modernize management of Atlantic menhaden

  • Bob Vanasse says:

    Contrary to Mr. Baker’s assertion “the proposals to increase the menhaden quota don’t take into account the needs of these predators,” there is an extensive discussion of how predation and natural mortality were accounted for in the stock assessment.

    The Menhaden Fishery Coalition, which represents companies comprising 95% of Atlantic menhaden landings has examined this repeated and inaccurate claim from the environmental community, most notably Mr. Baker. The complete report can be read here:

    A summary follows:

    Prominent environmental groups are spreading erroneous and incomplete criticisms of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) 2015 Atlantic menhaden stock assessment, widely regarded as the most accurate menhaden assessment in recorded history, according to an analysis released today by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition. Specifically, the Coalition calls out environmental groups who have been critical of the 2015 assessment’s handling of ecosystem-based management, while having previously been vocal in their support of what the Coalition notes as an objectively inferior and less accurate 2012 assessment. The ASMFC will consider setting new catch limits based on the results of the most recent assessment at its meeting next Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia.

    The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, which represents over 90 percent of menhaden fishermen, related businesses, and supporting industries up and down the Atlantic coast, details in its report how these criticisms that the 2015 assessment does not take an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management are incomplete and inaccurate. It notes that, contrary to assertions from prominent environmental groups, who claim that the ASMFC makes no consideration in its assessment for the needs of predators, the 2015 menhaden assessment does include estimates of natural and predation mortality. These estimates have undergone peer review and approval and are thus still the best information available on menhaden’s interactions with predators. This information has been publically available from the ASMFC, but, as the analysis notes, has remained conspicuously absent in most assessment criticisms.

    The Coalition also reports on the difficulties that fisheries managers face in establishing true Ecological Reference Points (EPRs) and transitioning to ecosystem-based management. Specifically, they note that the ASMFC has concluded that any ERP would require “additional technical work and additional peer review” before they can be ready as a viable option for fisheries managers, and the fact that the data from the single-species 2015 assessment is the best data the Commission has heading into its May meeting.

    The analysis concludes by noting that, until the Commission can complete the extensive process of designing, approving, and implementing ERPs and an ecosystem-based assessment, the results of the single-species 2015 assessment is the best information available on which to base management decisions. The Coalition states that this is especially true given that reforms and revisions made to the ASMFC assessment model make the 2015 assessment the most complete and accurate ever conducted. The Coalition urges the ASMFC to use the results of this assessment to set new, scientifically-backed harvest levels, that would reverse some of the economically-harmful cuts that the Commission implemented in 2012.

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