How a tiny fish that fuels an Atlantic ecosystem is at the centre of industry debates


Researchers hoped to find evidence of a healthy new generation of ospreys when they checked 84 nests of the fish-eating bird in mid-June at Mobjack Bay, an inlet at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay. They found only three young.

It was the lowest reproductive number in more than 50 years of monitoring the local population of the raptor, according to scientists at the College of William & Mary. They said it represented the latest evidence in a long-term decline in breeding success due to the bay-wide depletion of the bird’s favorite food — Atlantic menhaden.

Hundreds of millions of the little silvery fish play a crucial role in the ecology of coastal waters all along the United StatesEastern Seaboard, feeding bigger fish like striped bass and weakfish; marine mammals including whales and dolphins; and birds like bald eagles, great blue herons and brown pelicans. The fish are nutrient-rich, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids; they consume smaller organisms like plankton, and they filter huge quantities of ocean water.

But they are also a mainstay of the commercial fishing industry, caught in mass quantities to be processed into bait for crabs and lobsters, and in greater volume for so-called reduction fisheries, in which they are ground up and turned into products including fish oil and fish meal.

Allowing more menhaden to be fished

This year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal regulator, increased the amount of menhaden allowed to be caught to 233,550 metric tons throughout the Atlantic coast for the next two years, about 20% higher than the previous two years. The commission said the new quota would provide additional fishing opportunities while minimising the risk of damaging the fish’s ecosystem.

The agency concluded last August that there was no evidence that menhaden were being “overfished” across its range, when measured by “ecological reference points,” a network of the fish’s predators and prey that has guided the commission’s menhaden policy since 2020, replacing its practice of management by single species.

While raising the coastwide catch for menhaden, the commission left its quota for the reduction fishery in the Chesapeake Bay unchanged at 51,000 metric tons, or about 244 million fish, based on an average of 0.46 pounds per fish. Across the whole Atlantic coast, the agency authorized a catch of around 1.2 billion fish.

Overfishing degrading the ecosystem

Critics of the commission say the removal of such large quantities of fish from the bay is degrading the ecosystem in which menhaden play a central role, making it harder for species like osprey and striped bass to survive and thrive.

“The Virginia-based menhaden fishery is overfishing the stock of Atlantic menhaden in and around the Chesapeake Bay,” Noah Bressman, a fish biology professor at Salisbury University in Maryland, wrote in a letter to Maryland officials in 2021. “The disappearance of most of the menhaden from the bay is contributing to the disappearance of the many species that rely on menhaden.”

Tina Berger, a spokesperson for the commission, said there were “numerous factors responsible for declines in other species.” For example, she said, the weakfish population has also been hurt by high levels of predation and disease in recent years.

Lawsuit filed by recreational fishermen

In May, a group of recreational fishermen from Maryland sued the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, a state agency, claiming it contributed to the decline of menhaden in and around Chesapeake Bay by “rubber stamping” the latest quotas set by the Atlantic commission.

The Southern Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization said the Virginia agency’s decision was contributing to declining populations of menhaden and other species that depend on them, and that it was harming the recreational fishing industry, which the organization said contributed $1.3 billion a year to the Virginia economy.

The maximum harvest the commission set for Virginia and the Atlantic coast “does not relieve the Virginia commission from the duty to analyse — based on state-specific considerations prescribed by statute — the appropriate maximum harvest in the Virginia portion of the bay, and appropriate conservation measures,” according to the complaint, filed May 10 in the Circuit Court for the city of Richmond.

Phil Zalesak, a spokesperson for the plaintiffs, said the group was seeking a hearing on the matter in September.

The suit accused the state agency of issuing the regulation outside the period set by state law of October through December and of failing to do its own analysis of the conditions in state waters when adopting the commission’s new quota. It asked the court to invalidate the state agency’s regulation and to require a new rule that would protect Virginia waters, including the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

The state agency declined to comment.

Commercial fish ‘mining’ at the heart of the issue

Omega Protein, a company based in Reedville, Virginia, that harvests menhaden for conversion into fish oil and other products, declined to comment on the lawsuit but endorsed the commission’s argument that menhaden are not overfished. Ben Landry, a spokesperson for the company, said that the commission’s current limit on taking menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay was one of the lowest in the 150-year history of the bay’s fishery and that there was no scientific basis for claims that the fish is locally depleted.

Landry pointed to striped bass as an example of a fish that was “critically depleted” in Atlantic waters for reasons other than its food source, attributing the problem to “excessive” recreational fishing that should be curbed by emergency regulations.

Paul Eidman, founder of Menhaden Defenders, a nonprofit that advocates rebuilding stocks of the species along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, accused Omega of using industrial techniques, including big ships and spotter planes, to catch menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay in numbers that are not sustainable and that contribute to the decline of other species.

“It’s about the impact that these massive 195-foot vessels have,” Eidman said in an interview. “They take millions and millions of fish at one time, and it basically strip mines portions of the bay. Game fish and birds and all these other creatures suffer for that. It’s not that the fish aren’t there; it’s that they are getting wiped out too fast for nature to replenish them.”

Positive signs for menhaden elsewhere

Outside the Chesapeake Bay, the number of menhaden has increased since the Atlantic commission determined in 2012 that the fish was being harvested at a rate that would exceed its reproductive capacity if not corrected. At the time, the agency temporarily cut its total allowable catch by 20% coastwide, and the fish population recovered within two years.

Evidence of their recent abundance can be found off the coasts of New York and New Jersey, where more of their predators, including humpback whales, tuna, sharks and bald eagles, have returned, Eidman said.

(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)


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