Atlantic menhaden is a small fish with an outsized importance for ocean health. While people typically don’t eat menhaden, an oily fish often called “bunker,” more pounds of the fish are harvested each year than any other in the U.S. except Alaska pollock.
In 2016, the Atlantic menhaden harvest totaled about 400 million pounds, with about 76 percent used for livestock, pet and aquaculture feed and various fish oil products, including human health supplements. The remaining 24 percent was sold for use as bait in diverse recreational and commercial fisheries.
But Menhaden need special attention because so many other species, including striped bass, dolphins, humpback whales and osprey, depend on them for food.
The Nature Conservancy, along with many scientists, fishermen and other organizations, are urging the ASMFC to establish a new management approach that accounts for marine wildlife forage needs when menhaden harvest limits are set each year.
The Conservancy has been working on this issue for 10 years, and our state chapters from Maine to Florida are united in sharing our science-driven advice with ASMFC to ensure menhaden continue to serve as a strong foundation for Atlantic Coast marine wildlife and fishing communities.
Before 2012, the Atlantic menhaden fishery was managed without a total annual harvest limit. Amid many concerns over the health of the menhaden population and dependent species and businesses, the ASMFC passed Amendment 2 in 2012, capping annual harvests at approximately 20 percent less than average landings from 2009-2011.
Over the past five years the menhaden population has rebounded, as indicated by both ASMFC stock assessments and diverse reports of large menhaden schools at numerous locations along the Atlantic Coast.
The ASMFC reported it has received since last November over 126,000 public comments concerning Atlantic menhaden, which is more than the Commission has ever received regarding the management of a fishery. Commissioners will consider that input when making a final decision during the Nov. 13-14 meeting.
According to Kate Wilke, The Nature Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Marine Program Director, what we’ve heard throughout the entire period for public comment is really quite simple. And that is that we should keep growing the population of menhaden along the entire Atlantic Coast. “People repeatedly said abundant menhaden is good for fish and wildlife and good for the economy.”
After the Atlantic menhaden public hearing in New York in September, Carl LoBue, director of the Conservancy’s Ocean Program in New York, remarked, “It’s been incredibly inspiring to be aligned with sport fishermen, environmental advocates, whale watchers, scientists, bird enthusiasts and baymen that are all working together for the same outcome.”
Kevin Maye, a marine mechanic from New York, said the health of striped bass populations has a “huge impact” on his business. “When fishing is good, people use their boats. And we’re in the service business,” he said. “Those schools of bunker bring in tremendous amounts of bass. And it’s not just bass. Look at the whales. They’re inshore. They’re close.”
Artie Raslich, a wildlife photographer who also leads whale-watching excursions, said the return of whales to New York’s coastline in 2013 followed the return of menhaden there. “The reason why these whales are here… it’s for the fish that they eat. And that’s the only reason. And we need to protect them. We want [the menhaden fishery] to be managed making sure that our voices are heard, and not overharvest them. It’s not just for whale watching. Everything eats menhaden. Everything in this ocean around here is based on that. And if you take it away, everything else goes.”
A letter the Conservancy sent to the ASMFC outlining the organization’s recommended management changes is available online at nature.org/Amendment3.