East Coast fishery managers plan to increase the coastwide menhaden catch by 8 percent next year, while slashing the amount that can be harvested from the Chesapeake Bay.

But despite heavy pressure from environmental groups, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission balked at a proposal that would have required fishery managers to take into account the ecological role of the small, oily fish when setting future harvest levels.

By the end of their two-day meeting in mid-November, commissioners had succeeded in disappointing and pleasing environmentalists and industry officials alike — typically not at the same time — while setting up another big debate two years from now over how to account for the role menhaden play as a food source for other species.

In a statement after the meeting, Robert Ballou, of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and chair of the ASMFC Menhaden Board, acknowledged that many people were left disappointed by the decisions that will guide harvests for the next two years. But he said the commission’s actions demonstrated a “commitment to manage the menhaden resource in a way that balances menhaden’s ecological role with the needs of its stakeholders.”

It was the latest round in a decades-long struggle over how to manage the catch of Atlantic menhaden, a fish almost never eaten by humans that is an important food for a host of marine species. By weight, menhaden make up the largest catch in both the Chesapeake and along the East Coast, but by nearly all accounts their abundance is increasing, especially in New England. In fact, the ASMFC’s science advisers indicated that the current coastal catch limit of 200,000 metric tons could be increased by more than 50 percent with little chance of overfishing the species.

But conservation groups have long argued that such assessments do not fully account for the importance of menhaden as a food source for marine mammals, many birds, and a host of other fish, such as striped bass.

It is part of a larger, long-running debate between conservation groups and the fishing industry over how to treat forage fish, which include menhaden, anchovies and other small species that provide a critical link in the aquatic food chain by converting plankton into nourishment for larger predators.

Historically, conservationists contend that forage species have received less attention — and protection from overfishing — than the larger predators, such as striped bass. Prior to the meeting near Baltimore, conservationists had gathered a record-setting 157,599 comments urging the ASMFC to adopt new harvest guidelines, or reference points, that would take the ecological role of the fish into account when setting catch limits. If adopted, the guidelines would almost certainly have required a reduction in the current coastwide menhaden catch.

But critics — which included ASMFC’s own scientific advisers, as well as the commercial menhaden industry — said the reference points under consideration were based on studies of other species in other places and may not be applicable to menhaden.

Ultimately, the commission — a panel of state fishery managers that regulates catches of migratory fish along the coast — voted 13–5 to delay the adoption of ecological reference points until a panel of scientists it has assembled can make its own ecological recommendations, tailored specifically to menhaden. Those recommendations are not expected to be ready until 2019.

Dozens of activists attended the meeting, many holding bright yellow signs that said, “Little Fish Big Deal,” “Keep it Forage” or “Conserve Menhaden.” Many were surprised not only to be defeated after the huge volume of comments — more than 99 percent in favor of ecological reference points — but also by the lopsided vote.

“When you hear that much support…, and then the vote is against ecological reference points, that is a shock,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

About three quarters of the menhaden harvested along the East Coast are caught by a fishing fleet based in Reedville, VA. It is operated by Omega Protein, which processes its harvest into animal feed and nutritional supplements. The rest of the fish are caught for bait by other operations spread along the coast.

Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega, said the company supports setting ecological reference points, but believes in waiting until the ASMFC science panel can devise guidelines specific to menhaden.

“We were pleased by today’s decision,” he said. “It showed the commission chose to stay the course and not take an action that we think was not in the best interest of the stock.”

Meanwhile, the board voted to increase the total allowable coastwide catch for 2018 and 2019 by 8 percent, from the current 200,000 metric tons to 216,000 metric tons. That was more than many conservation groups wanted, but less than the industry had hoped.

The board also slashed the amount of menhaden that Omega could harvest annually from the Chesapeake from 87,216 metric tons to 51,000 metric tons. The lower figure represented Omega’s average Bay catch in the last five years, largely because the company’s fleet has shifted much of its harvest to outside the Bay.

Kate Wilke, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Marine Program, called the reduced Bay cap “one ray of light at the end of a dreary two days.” She said it would help benefit both menhaden that use the Bay as a nursery area, as well as the fish that eat them.

“That’s really a meaningful reduction and it is going to protect millions of young fish that depend on that critical nursery area,” she said. “That is a really big deal to the health of the Bay and the coastwide menhaden population.”

Landry, though, said the Bay vote was bad for the company and not based on science. The ASMFC turned what had been the average Bay catch during the last several years, he explained, into the new maximum.

“Now we don’t have any high years,” Landry said, noting that years of study had failed to show evidence that menhaden harvests in the Bay were affecting other species. Further, he said, the cap affects only Omega’s reduction fishery, and not bait fisheries. “Science left the party a long time ago,” Landry said. “It’s all politics now.”

While Omega’s catch from the Bay has dropped sharply over the last two decades, some on the commission expressed concern that this could change because the company, based in Texas, was recently bought by Cooke Aquaculture, based in Canada. Landry said none of the planned changes in operations would affect the Chesapeake.

The commission also changed the way the catch was allocated coastwide, so that each East Coast state is guaranteed at least 1 percent of the total, even if they had no historical menhaden catch. Under the new formula, all Atlantic states got increases except for Virginia — the state with the largest catch — which saw a slight decline.

Virginia could recoup its loss, as under the new allocation system, states that don’t use all of their quota are allowed to transfer it to others. The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, a trade group that represents both Omega and the coastal bait fisheries, criticized that plan. It complained the change sets up a “horse-trade” mechanism that penalizes states like Virginia and New Jersey, which have the largest menhaden operations, while benefiting those with none.

All of those issues will be revisited in 2019, when an updated assessment of the stock will be completed, and the commission’s scientific workgroup is scheduled to recommend menhaden-specific reference points to account for the species’ ecological role.

Environmental groups, though, are skeptical that those new ecological guidelines will be ready for use in two years.

Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said by the time the new recommendations are peer-reviewed and translated into actual management recommendations “it’s probably another four or five years.”

That, he added, is why, as an interim measure, the conservation community wanted to impose an ecological target using a “scientifically valid rule of thumb.” 

Some members of the commission’s menhaden board also expressed skepticism that new recommendations would be ready on time and urged the adoption of the interim reference points pushed by conservation groups.

“This provides an opportunity for the board to seriously commit to ecosystem management” and not “kick the can any farther down the road,” said Andy Shiels, of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Katie Drew, a stock assessment scientist with the commission, said she was “cautiously optimistic” that the scientific panels’ recommendations would be ready in 2019.

But for now, with no one totally happy about the recent decisions, both fishing interests and ecological groups say they are looking forward to seeing what the scientists recommend in two years.  Whether those recommendations end the decades-old debate over menhaden management is another matter.

“Even when the biological and ecological reference points are all said and done, they are not going to be coming out of the gate to be perfect,” cautioned Rob O’Reilly, chief of fisheries management with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission,

“It is just not going to happen,” O’Reilly said. “Things are going to need to be fine-tuned along the way.”