East Coast fishery managers failed to agree Wednesday on a harvest limit for next year’s menhaden catch.

None of a series of management options, which ranged from maintaining the current coastwide limit to a 19 percent increase, secured enough votes to pass the menhaden management board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

After more than an hour of stalemate, the only measure that passed was one to postpone the decision to the board’s November meeting.

“We have actually made a decision,” declared board Chair Robert Ballou, of the Rhode Island Department of Fish and Wildlife, after the postponement secured a scant majority of 10 out of 18 votes.

If the board fails to act by the end of the year, there would be no 2017 catch limit for the small, oily fish that has been at the center of a big fishery debate for decades.

Menhaden – by weight, the largest catch by far in the Chesapeake Bay -- are caught by a large commercial fishery based in Virginia which produces fish oil and other products, and by a series of smaller operations along the Atlantic coast which sell them for bait to other fishermen.

But menhaden are also an important food source for other fish, such as striped bass, and many recreational fishing organizations and conservation groups have long questioned whether those commercial operations leave enough menhaden in the water to serve as forage for other species.

In December 2012, the ASMFC, which manages migratory species in state waters along the East Coast, agreed to cut menhaden catches 20 percent after a stock assessment indicated the population was overfished.

But a new assessment completed last year — using new models and new information — concluded the population wasn’t overfished, and was actually in good shape.

Indeed, several speakers at the meeting cited anecdotal evidence that menhaden numbers were increasing in many areas along the coast.

And an analysis by the menhaden board’s technical advisory committee showed the menhaden population levels were robust enough to support a harvest increase of as much as 40 percent without overfishing the stock. That renewed calls from commercial harvesters to increase the current coastwide catch limit of 187,880 metric tons.

“If you are looking at these facts that you’ve presented here today, that there is a zero percent chance of overfishing, I can’t see why there shouldn’t be an increase,” Robert Newberry, president of the Delmarva Fisheries Association, told the board.

Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega Protein, the largest menhaden harvester on the coast, expressed surprise that some members of the commission would not support an increase of 20–30 percent even though it would present “zero percent likelihood” of overfishing the stock. “I don’t know what a commissioner needs to be convinced,” he said. “This is a robust stock; it has expanded in its range. That is of little debate.”

Recreational and conservation groups contended that while the population may be at little risk of overfishing, there still may not be enough menhaden to feed predatory fish, birds and marine mammals up and down the coast.

“Menhaden aren’t like all other species; they are a critical forage species,” said Ken Hinman, president of the conservation group Wild Oceans. “Striped bass and a whole bunch of other fish, and a whole bunch of other wildlife, depend on an abundance of menhaden.”

They noted that the ASMFC, in recognition of menhaden’s importance as a food source for other species, has agreed to update its management plan for the fishery next year to account for that ecosystem role. They contended the commission should not change catch limits until that process is completed because analyses being done for that plan update could show that more menhaden should be left uncaught.

“For a forage species like menhaden, I don’t believe that underfishing can occur,” said David Sikorski, government relations director for the Coastal Conservation Association’s Maryland chapter.

During the ensuing debate, commission members went back and forth on the issue, with some contending that new evidence justified relaxing catch limits which had cost some fishermen income and forced layoffs at Omega’s Reedville, VA menhaden processing plant. Others expressed concern that such an action now could end up being reversed next year when the management plan is updated.

Ultimately, the only argument that carried the day was to postpone the decision.