Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Menhaden Recovery Still Incomplete in New England

Menhaden swimming through water. Photo credit: Gene Helfman (via The Pew Charitable Trusts).

Guest Post by Patrick Paquette

A recent article distributed by the fishing industry web site Saving Menhaden tells a great story about the ongoing recovery of Atlantic menhaden. The article’s claims are supported by mainstream media accounts that celebrate what happens when menhaden return to local waters. Unfortunately, both the story and the recovery of what is often referred to as “The Most Important Fish in The Sea” are incomplete. As the article and its graphic clearly demonstrate, evidence of menhaden recovery seems to cease north of Rhode Island. This is because the recovery and repopulation of menhaden (as cited in the article about whales along the shores of New York) has not yet reached the historic menhaden grounds of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.

The good news is that recent evidence indicates New England may soon see a return of what was once an abundant forage fish that supported both recreational and commercial harvest and contributed to the local economy. For the first time in ten years, recreational anglers fishing the Sept.- Oct. 2014 Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby encountered increased numbers of one to three inch “peanut,” or juvenile, menhaden around the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. “Peanut Bunker,” as they’re known, are the trigger for a world-class light tackle fishery that targets False albacore and Atlantic bonito and attracts anglers from not only all 50 states but many foreign countries as well. Without juvenile menhaden the fish, the tourist anglers, and the economic boom both bring to the area remain in a state of decline. Last year wasn’t like it used to be in the early 2000s, but it is a welcome sign of a menhaden stock that is in the process of rebuilding.

In addition, adult menhaden –which used to fuel one of the East Coast’s most famous trophy striped bass fisheries — remain a rare sight around these same islands. Anglers and business owners look forward to a future when the benefits of menhaden conservation finally return to this part of their historic range.

The farther north we look, the more we should realize that menhaden stocks still have a way to go when it comes to recovery. Despite perfect conditions in the many estuarine habitats along the south side of Cape Cod, from Falmouth to Chatham, only small schools of adult menhaden arrived late this past summer. This is months later and in far fewer numbers than they would arrive only fifteen years ago.

Many species are moving north, but when it comes to menhaden, evidence of recovery has not yet made it past Cape Cod. Fishermen based out of Boston and Gloucester question stories of menhaden recovery because they see no evidence in their local waters. In the Gulf of Maine commercial purse seiners who harvest important bait needed by lobster fishermen travel long distances to fish the waters off New Jersey. There was a time when Maine was a large part of the menhaden fishery, including harvesters and processing plants that provided much needed jobs in the local economy. However, that was before industrial reduction fishing in the Chesapeake started to export menhaden products to fish farms, many outside the US. Given the chance, menhaden and the economic benefits they bring may one day return to New England. If given the chance.

In a very rare situation, both the environmental community and all fishermen involved with menhaden management (including the industrial reduction industry) agree that the best available science with regard to menhaden is the recent January 2015 Benchmark Stock Assessment.

This assessment confirms the observations of New England’s fishermen that menhaden recovery has not yet reached New England. During its development, the stock assessment subcommittee actually excluded from their analysis the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s fishery dependent trawl and seine surveys because they had “extremely low occurrence of menhaden.” (See table 5.2.1 on p. 124 of the assessment document).  In other words, these surveys didn’t have enough data on menhaden to justify using them in the model. The same table also shows no surveys from the states of New Hampshire or Maine.  This is strong evidence that there are very few menhaden in the waters of New England.

The assessment also shows evidence of the economic decline that is linked to a lack of menhaden.  The table and figure on page 162 demonstrate that between 1955 and as recent as 1993 there were an average of 3 and as many as 5 menhaden plants operating north of Cape Cod. By 1995 there were none left. Gone were the important jobs that disappeared with the fish. I’m sure there are some out of work commercial fishermen that would be happy to see menhaden fishing and processing return to New England waters. If conservative management is left in place, this important fish may once again contribute in many ways to what was once one of the world’s most important fishing locations–New England.

The Saving Menhaden web site gets it right when it acknowledges that, “There is still room for improvement in the stock, with overall abundance levels still remaining low.” Where the article departs common sense is when it claims, “For Atlantic Menhaden, a durable and encouraging consensus has emerged: the species is healthy, wide ranging, and sustainable managed.” The only consensus you will find amongst recreational and small boat commercial fishermen across New England is the call for continued conservative management of menhaden and a demand that menhaden stocks be allowed to recover across their historic range, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Captain Patrick Paquette lives in Hyannis MA, serves as Govt. Affairs Officer of the 65 year old MA Striped Bass Association and works as a recreational fishing community advocate focused on recreational fishing issues including conservation of the forage species needed to support robust and valuable recreational fishing opportunities. 


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