Case for menhaden conservation

Bill May, Carroll Outdoors | Posted: Saturday, September 10, 2011 4:00 pm
Link to article in the Carroll County Times

Anyone concerned with the health of Chesapeake Bay, or indeed the health of the fishery of the entire East Coast, needs to pay attention to the current state of menhaden.

Small, bony and oily, menhaden (bunker) are usually not consumed by humans – at least directly. But menhaden are the forage base for striped bass, bluefish, cod, sea trout, bonito, tuna, haddock, halibut, mackerel, swordfish, king mackerel, summer flounder and numerous other predator species to the point that renowned 19th-century ichthyologist G. Brown Goode stated that people eating Atlantic saltwater fish consume “nothing but menhaden.” (Since menhaden are used to bait crab and lobster pots and “reduced” (boiled, dried and ground) menhaden are used for fertilizer, as feed for chicken, pigs and cattle and as fish oil supplements, they are a significant factor in nearly any human diet.)

A 2001 article in “Discover” magazine by H. Bruce Franklin dubbed menhaden “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” the title of the widely-quoted article and subsequent book, and a label that has caught on among both the scientific and lay communities.

Franklin also proclaims that vast schools of filter-feeding menhaden filter the water, promoting growth of healthful subaquatic grasses and limiting the spread of algae blooms.

Menhaden, are one of 23 species managed by The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a deliberative body of 15 Atlantic coast states formed in 1942 and chartered by the United States Congress in 1950 with the mission “To promote the better utilization of the fisheries, marine, shell, and anadromous of the Atlantic seaboard by the development of a joint program for the promotion and protection of such fisheries, and by the prevention of physical waste of the fisheries from any cause.”

In 2006 AFMFC established a Chesapeake Bay cap for the menhaden reduction fishery. After years of unsuccessful attempts to consider further limits, ASMFC voted on August 2 to publish for public comment a range of options for rebuilding menhaden stocks. Draft Addendum V to the Atlantic Menhaden Fishery Management Plan, raises the overfishing threshold while proposing new rebuilding targets. The public has an opportunity until November 2 to comment at hearings and/or through written comments. The ASMFC will formally adopt the new population targets and fishing limits in November, after which it will develop appropriate management measures, e.g., quotas and allocations, for review and adoption in early 2012.

Now for the hard part.

This is a serious and complex issue. It’s not just the usual commercial versus recreational brawl over who gets the most fish. The major players in this debate will be Omega Protein and their generations of employees in Reedville and powerful political allies in Virginia, Texas and nationally plus menhaden bait fishers along the Atlantic coast versus individual fishermen, the sport fishing industry and an array of national and regional conservation groups including the Maryland and Virginia Coastal Conservation Associations (CCA), Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Greenpeace, Nature Conservancy, Menhaden Matter, National Coalition for Marine Conservation and Maryland Saltwater Sportsman’s Association.

Omega Protein, based in Houston, Texas operates a reducing plant in Reedville, Virginia, which is also the base for its fleet of ten ships and eight spotter planes. Menhaden, travelling in huge schools, are located by the planes, then a pair of netting ships deploy purse nets that capture as much as 50,000 pounds of menhaden at a time to be vacuumed into awaiting factory ships. Last year, according to ASMFC, Omega Protein’s Reedville fleet took an estimated 200,000 tons of menhaden, 80 percent of the catch along the Atlantic, operating largely in Virginia-controlled portions of Chesapeake Bay up to 3 miles offshore and limited portions of North Carolina. The other 20 % was harvested for bait, primarily by Maryland, New Jersey and New England watermen.

The more one reads on this issue the more claims, counterclaims and different sets of statistics are encountered. However, certain threads emerge:

* Menhaden populations are extremely difficult to measure, but the preponderance of evidence shows populations have declined precipitously in the last 30 years, and reproductive capacities appear dangerously depleted.

* Suggested causes are debated but include declining water quality, overfishing or both. In any case, limiting the harvest is a logical proposed solution that may or may not prove effective.

* Menhaden filtering capacities appear, from several studies, to be vastly overblown. Menhaden cannot eliminate Chesapeake “dead zones.”

* Cutting the menhaden harvest can be expected to cause economic pain along the northeast and mid-Atlantic in a climate of harsh economic times and contentious political debate.

*A crash of the menhaden population would be disastrous ecologically in terms of predator fish and bird populations and economically, crippling both the commercial and sport fishing industries. Numerous studies have shown sport fishing has many times the economic benefit of commercial fishing operations.

There are a number of websites providing further information:
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries –
Chesapeake Bay Foundation –
Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland –
Omega Protein –
Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation –

Personally I agree with Jay Odell, Director of the Nature Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Marine Program:
“It’s impossible to imagine that reducing the menhaden stock so much has not had some negative impact. Fisheries scholars differ on exactly what the cause and effect of the different changes are. But menhaden sit at the very base of the food chain, and scientists around the world are saying they need to be managed more conservatively.”
My comments to ASMFC will agree with CCA MD that the moderate and reasonable option of establishing a 15% Minimum Spawning Potential (MSP) (Option 2) as the overfishing threshold and that their other suite of target and management options be adopted.

Study and speak up, folks. This is a critical issue. Go to and see “Public Input” then see “Draft Amendment V…Menhaden.” Read the proposed amendment then comment via email to

Bill May is a Times outdoors writer. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or

This entry was posted in Articles on Menhaden, Menhaden In the News and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Case for menhaden conservation

  1. Pingback: Case for menhaden conservation | Saltwater Fishing

  2. Al Kindley says:

    If omega had to fish like everyone else without planes spotting the fish for them we woudn’t have to be in such a shortage of manhaden

  3. David Nyberg says:

    Sounds like things are coming to a head, I applaud your efforts.

    Thank you,
    Dave Nyberg

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