A drone camera captures the incredible sight of the most important fish in the sea—Atlantic menhaden.
Up Above A drone camera captures the incredible sight of the most important fish in the sea—Atlantic menhaden. © Sutton Lynch

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The Nature Conservancy Applauds Landmark Decision that Will Benefit Marine Wildlife, Fishing and Coastal Industries

Supported by diverse interests—ranging from associations representing recreational anglers and fishing guides to tour guides, commercial fishers, and conservationists —the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC) voted unanimously on Aug. 5 to change how it manages the menhaden fishery. Instead of setting catch limits for Atlantic menhaden based on the species’ numbers, as it has since 2012, the Commission will adopt “ecological reference points,” or ERPs. Long advocated by marine scientists, this is a significant change in fishery management, as ERPs take into account the needs of other species and fisheries, such as striped bass.

A small fish that’s harvested for livestock, poultry and aquaculture feed as well as fish oil supplements, bait and fertilizer, Atlantic menhaden are often called “the most important fish in the sea,” as they are a critical food source for larger fish and marine animals like striped bass, bluefish, tuna, whales, dolphins and sea birds. Today, the menhaden catch is the largest by volume of any species on the East Coast and is the second largest in the nation overall.  

When ASFMC—a 15-state body that regulates fishing for some 27 species from Maine to Florida—set catch limits for menhaden in 2012, it was a milestone because it was the first time this keystone species had a cap on total allowable catch. However, the 2012 catch limits did not take into consideration the needs of other species that depend on menhaden. Guided by science, diverse interests have been advocating for this kind of management change for many years. The Commission’s decision means the critical impact menhaden have on several other key marine species will now be a factor in the management of the fishery.

“Basically, the new ERPs account for the value of the fish we leave in the water in addition to the value of those we take out of the water,” said Carl LoBue, the oceans and fisheries director for The Nature Conservancy in New York. “We applaud the Commission for its decision to adopt these ERPs because they are critically important to many other species, including those that people love to catch and watch, which boosts local economies along the entire Atlantic Coast.” 

Over time, the 2012 menhaden catch limits brought about the fish’s resurgence, which, in turn, led to the return of whales and dolphins to New York Harbor. This proved to be a boon for tourism and recreation in New York, as the numerous sightings attracted wildlife watchers. In Maine, more menhaden helped alleviate a shortage of baitfish used in the state’s half-billion-dollar lobster fishery. And in states throughout the East Coast, recreational anglers and fishing guides consider abundant menhaden beneficial to their fishing interests. 

Since the 2000s, The Nature Conservancy has provided scientific expertise to the ASFMC and worked closely with government leaders and diverse partners to help ensure the sustainability of menhaden and protect their essential place in a healthy marine ecosystem. 

The American Saltwater Guides Association was one of many strong proponents of the new ERPs. Tony Friedrich, the association’s vice president and policy director, praised the collaboration that has helped secure these significant milestones. “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?” he asked. 

Learn more at nature.org/menhaden.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.