Fishing curb due for 'most important fish in sea'
Fisheries regulators meeting in Boston have decided to increase protection for menhaden, a small silvery fish that's widely regarded as ''the most important fish in the sea''' because it's a key food source for birds and other fish in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast.
Before a crowd of onlookers, many of them concerned recreational fishermen, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted overwhelmingly to set new population threshold and harvest targets for menhaden, effectively reducing the catch for now by about 37 percent, starting next year, according to my colleague, Candus Thomson, who's there reporting for The Baltimore Sun. The commission, which oversees all in-shore fishing along the coast, represents all the states from Maine to Florida.
Biologists, conservationists and recreational fishing groups had pressed the commission to act, pointing to signs menhaden are in trouble. They've noted, for instance, that menhaden are a shrinking source of food for Chesapeake striped bass, going from 70 percent to about 8 percent of their diet. Most stripers, or rockfish as they're known locally, are infected with a bacterial disease which scientists have said could be aggravated by not getting enough to eat.
There was pushback, though, from commercial fishermen, who catch menhaden for crab and lobster bait, and from Omega Protein, based in Reedville, VA., which harvests the fish on a grand scale for processing into animal feed and heart-healthy diet supplements. The Omega Protein Corp.'s fishing fleet hauls in 80 percent of all menhaden caught along the coast, making the port of Reedville, Va., the second busiest for fish landings in the United States.
The harvest reduction agreed to was short of the 45 percent cutback some anglers wanted, but still steeper than what Omega's spokesman had indicated the company could live with. The company's supporters had urged the commision to leave harvest limits alone, for the sake of its 300 employees. Other commercial fishermen also had argued they have no other bait they could use. The commission vote was 14 to 3, with Maryland in the majority. Virginia, New Jersey and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission opposed major changes.
The decision heartened conservationists, though, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who issued a statement saying the commission's move helps ensure "a sustainable future" for menhaden and all the fish and wildlife that depend on them for food.
Jay Odell of the Nature Conservancy called it "a great day" for menhaden and for all the other species and people who depend on them remaining abundant. He stressed that the harvest cutback agreed to is "not a permanent throttle on fishing, but an investment in the future." If, as expected, the population rebounds, the size of the catch will come back as well, he said.
“We’ve learned from other fisheries, such as striped bass and crab, that easing harvest pressures can dramatically replenish a stock," said Bill Goldsborough, senior fishieries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a member of the fisheries commission. "This decision will spur menhaden abundance and begin the rebuilding process.”
(Menhaden caught in Chesapeake Bay. 2011 Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)