Menhaden: The Most Important Fish at the Moment

Menhaden are a favorite food of osprey and other wildlife. (istock)

Menhaden are a favorite food of osprey and other wildlife. (istock)

Industry and conservationists debate future of the species

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Even though menhaden are a fish few people eat, they are currently at the center of a heated dispute between the commercial fishing industry and environmental organizations. The two sides are pushing contradictory narratives about the importance of menhaden to the marine food web.

During its two-day meeting, Nov. 13-14 in Baltimore, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is expected to vote on Amendment 3 — a proposal to provide stronger protections for Atlantic menhaden.

Rhode Island’s three representatives on the commission are Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, David Borden, representing Gov. Gina Raimondo, and Robert Ballou, assistant to the director at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, who also serves as chairman of the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board.

Conservationists often refer to the species as “the most important fish in the sea” — after the title of a 2007 book by H. Bruce Franklin. They note that menhaden deserve special attention and protection because so many other species, such as bluefish, dolphins, eagles, humpback whales, osprey, sharks, striped bass and weakfish, depend on them for food.

In a recent press release, The Nature Conservancy called the species a “small fish with outsized importance for ocean health.” The conservancy also sent a letter to the ASMFC outlining the organization’s recommended management changes, such as adjusting coast-wide total allowable catch allocations to better reflect the current distribution and abundance of menhaden from Maine to Florida.

Menhaden are often referred to as ‘the most important fish in the sea.’

Menhaden are often referred to as ‘the most important fish in the sea.’

Save The Bay has also come out in favor of better protecting the menhaden population. The Providence-based organization favors a more ecosystem-based management approach.

“Atlantic menhaden play a central role in the ecological and economic vitality of the Atlantic coastal ecosystem as an essential food for whales and important commercial and game fishes and a host of other marine wildlife,” according to a Save The Bay press release. “Menhaden are also a key force in the regulation of regional water quality by filtering phytoplankton, which are the menhaden’s food source and a major cause of algae blooms and brown tides.”

The Nature Conservancy and Save The Bay, along with the Audubon Society and some scientists and fishermen, have urged the ASMFC to establish a new management approach that accounts for marine wildlife forage needs when menhaden harvest limits are annually set.

“Abundant menhaden is good for fish and wildlife ... and good for the economy,” John Torgan, The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island state director, said. “Rhode Islanders care about menhaden because they are critical to the health of Narragansett Bay and the larger coastal ecosystem, and have an enormous effect on other vital industries, like fishing and tourism.”

During the past five years, the menhaden population has rebounded, according to The Nature Conservancy, as indicated by ASMFC stock assessments and reports of large menhaden schools at numerous locations along the Atlantic Coast, including Narragansett Bay.

Prior to 2012, however, the Atlantic menhaden fishery was managed without a total annual harvest limit. Amid concerns about the health of the population, the ASMFC passed Amendment 2 that year, capping annual harvests at about 20 percent less than average landings from 2009-11.

The Nature Conservancy, concerned that the fate of continued menhaden recovery still remains uncertain, teamed up with Red Vault Productions to produce a video that captured the perspectives of five New York stakeholders on why abundant menhaden is good for New York’s ecology and economy.

While people rarely eat menhaden — an oily fish often called “pogies” or “bunkers” by New Englanders — more pounds of the fish are harvested each year than any other in the United States except Alaska pollock.

Last year, for example, the Atlantic menhaden harvest totaled some 400 million pounds, with about 76 percent used for livestock, pet and aquaculture feed, for various fish-oil products, and added to fertilizers. Much of the remaining supply was sold as bait in recreational and commercial fisheries.

“Rhode Island’s saltwater anglers, who spend millions of dollars pursuing their interest, believe this is the most important fisheries issue to come up for a vote in years,” said Rich Hittinger, vice president of the 7,500-member Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association. “It is clear that the vast majority of those with an interest in menhaden support ecological management of this fish.”

The commercial menhaden fishing industry, however, has a vastly different take. The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition claims widespread misconceptions about Atlantic menhaden, saying “the science shows a healthy and sustainable fishery” and noting that the ASMFC found in its 2017 stock assessment that Atlantic menhaden is neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.

“It is true that menhaden serve as ‘forage’ for larger predators, but their importance in marine food webs is frequently overstated,” according to a Menhaden Fisheries Coalition press kit.

The coalition points to a study published in April in Fisheries Research by Ray Hilborn that claims fishing for forage species such as menhaden likely has a lower impact on predators than previously thought.

There seems to be little correlation between the number of predator species in the water and the number of forage fish, making it nearly impossible to determine a catch level that is appropriate for forage fish as a whole, according to the study. Other variables include the natural variability of forage fish, which is different from species to species, and relative locations of predators and forage species.

The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition teamed up with industry-funded Saving Seafood to produce two videos and a 27-page booklet titled “Faces of the Menhaden Fishery" to support their stance.

Menhaden is the second-largest U.S. fishery, and two states, New Jersey and Virginia, control about 96 percent of the coast-wide quota.

Since last November, the ASMFC has received more than 126,000 public comments concerning Atlantic menhaden, the most the commission has ever received regarding the management of a fishery.