The Return of the Most Important Fish in the Sea
Collaborative menhaden management leads to marine life diversity along the Atlantic coast.
On August 5, 2020, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission announced a new management approach for the Atlantic menhaden—the most important fish in the sea. Below, read about how this important decision will help fish species and marine mammals thrive along coastlines stretching from Maine to Florida.
“If you want to have big fish,” says Carl LoBue, The Nature Conservancy’s New York oceans and fisheries director, “you need little fish for them to eat.” The big fish he’s referring to include striped bass, bluefish, tuna, as well as marine mammals like whales and dolphins, which are not actually fish, except in the public imagination. “And you only get big fish if you leave enough little fish in the ocean.”
For whales, dolphins, seabirds, ospreys, eagles and a long list of predatory fish along the east coast of the United States, those little fish are Atlantic menhaden, also known as pogy, mossbunker or bunker, depending on where you are grew up. A tiny fish, menhaden eat by filtering tiny plants and particles from the water, which LoBue describes as “turning sunlight into whales.” Although, since menhaden are eaten by so many other fish and wildlife, they are best known by their moniker, “the most important fish in the sea.”
This keystone species is not just important for big fish, dolphins and whales. This little fish is essential for a healthy ocean and a strong coastal economy. From Maine’s highly valued lobster fishery, which uses menhaden for bait, to seafood chefs up and down the coast, people and wildlife depend on plentiful menhaden in our seas.
What Is the New Approach to Managing Menhaden?
Menhaden are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a group of 15 states that set regulations for 27 species in coastal waters from Maine to Florida. On August 5, the Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board unanimously voted to change how it manages the fishery. The Commission will now use “ecological reference points.” For the first time, the needs of striped bass, and the striped bass fishery, will be considered before the Commission decides how many menhaden can be harvested each year.
Ecological Reference Point (ERP)
This holistic approach to fisheries management sets catch limits that take the health of the surrounding ecosystem into account, including the needs of species that depend on the fish population in question to survive.
This is a sea change—and not just for the menhaden fishery. This decision has a lot of significance for the marine ecosystem and all kinds of businesses, from the striped bass fishery to whale-watching boat tours. The move to ecological reference points is what a diverse coalition of fishers, scientists and environmental advocates, including The Nature Conservancy, have been recommending for a very long time. Years of hard work and collaboration went into this effort.
In the video below, American Saltwater Guide’s Association Policy Director Tony Friedrich reflects emotionally, “Who would have thought marine biologists, recreational anglers, bird watchers, whale enthusiasts, and even commercial fishermen would all come together under the same virtual tent to support menhaden?”
Yet they did. And it wasn’t the first time their work together paid off.
Harvest Limits Were the First Step to Menhaden Recovery
The Atlantic menhaden fishery was basically unregulated until 2012, when harvest limits were set in response to declines in the menhaden population. Since that regulation went into effect, the menhaden population has been rebounding and expanding back into their historic range. This was a huge step forward that came about after many years of collaboration and advocacy by many groups, including The Nature Conservancy.
However, what the initial regulation didn’t do was calculate how menhaden fishing would affect other fisheries and the marine food web. This left fishery managers at odds with one another and led to annual debates. Some managers wanted to maximize the harvest, by setting higher catch limits. Other managers wanted to protect the ecosystem or recognized that by setting lower catch limits, other fisheries, such as striped bass, would do much better.
The Commission’s August decision changes that. By adopting ecological reference points, the needs of striped bass, a predatory fish that is highly dependent on an abundance of menhaden, will be considered when setting catch limits. This is a huge step forward.
More Menhaden Means More Whales, Dolphins and Other Species
The resurgence of menhaden over the last several years has already been a boon to wildlife, industry and the simple joy of millions of people. Thanks to menhaden, whales have returned to New York Harbor, offering New Yorkers and tourists from around the world breathtaking sights.
New York now has several thriving whale watching businesses, and dolphins chasing menhaden along New York and New Jersey beaches has almost become expected. In Maine, where menhaden used to arrive in refrigerated trucks from the Mid-Atlantic, to be used as bait for the highly valued lobster fishery, they now arrive swimmingly by their own accord.
What’s Next? Holistic Fisheries Management
While the August 2020 decision is a huge leap forward in fishery management, advocates know the new ecological catch limits aren’t perfect, and more work is ahead. But this more holistic approach to fisheries management will bring about many benefits along the Atlantic Coast.
“We may see a ripple effect happen. As regulators consider how to sustainably manage other fisheries, this decision may be held up as a new model, a new way to ensure that our ecosystem is vibrant and brimming with life—for the good of wildlife, for people and for the many workers, businesses and industries that rely on healthy and plentiful fish,” said Kate Wilke, Virginia fisheries scientist for The Nature Conservancy.
This unlikely, but mighty, group of allies—fishers, anglers, advocates and scientists—will continue to collaborate and advocate for more holistic management practices up and down the East Coast. And thanks to your support, The Nature Conservancy will continue to lead efforts to protect and restore the most important fish in the sea, from Maine to Florida.