Bay Journal

Menhaden vital to health of food chain, fishing communities

  • By Kim Coble on November 01, 2012
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The menhaden fleet deploys seine nets to capture the oily fish.  (Dave Harp)

In the 1940s, a company in Reedville, VA, that fished Atlantic menhaden for "reduction" (industrial processing) described the little silvery fish as "made for Man to harvest." To them, the supply was inexhaustible, with no other value except crab pot bait.

Today, that viewpoint seems outrageous, but it dies hard. It has caused big problems for the menhaden, aka bunker, pogy, or alewife. These herring relatives have ranged along the coast in astronomical numbers for thousands of years. Most of the fish winter and spawn off the Carolina coast.

In summer, young-of-the-year move into estuaries to feed and grow. Ditto some of the 1– to 2-year-olds. The Chesapeake provides them with critical habitat. Older fish migrate farther north, so the largest menhaden go to New England (where large Chesapeake rockfish spend the summer).

Why such vast numbers? Simple: Menhaden eat low on the food web. They are omnivorous filter feeders, straining whatever water they swim through. Depending on a fish's age, it might catch phytoplankton (tiny algae cells), zooplankton (tiny invertebrate animals), or — especially in estuaries — detritus (semi-decayed plant material).

The success of this ecological niche lies in tapping these vast food sources and converting them to oily, protein-filled flesh for the next level of the coastal food web. Menhaden feed predators like rockfish, bluefish and sea trout, plus ospreys, loons, gannets and marine mammals. Their value to these fish and birds is immense.

We humans make scant use of menhaden as food. They are mostly valued as bait for finfish and shellfish, or for their oil. The oil goes into industrial products, including paints, cosmetics and Omega-3 diet supplements. The leftover high-protein meal becomes livestock feed.

The reduction industry came to the Chesapeake in the 1870s. Today, small airplanes help find menhaden schools, then skillful captains and crews use purse seines to surround them. The harvest is highly automated, using twin 32-foot "purse boats" and 175-foot-long "steamers" (mother ships). Reedville is the fishery's hub. The industry supports 250 good-paying jobs. (To learn more, visit the Reedville Fishermen's Museum at www.rfmuseum.org.)

As bait, the menhaden's oily flesh exudes a trail to lure crabs and lobsters, as well as rockfish and bluefish. It has been particularly valuable in the Chesapeake since the invention of the crab pot in 1928.

The bait fishery is concentrated between Virginia and Massachusetts. Every watermen's village from Hampton Roads to Rock Hall is dependent on bait as well as coastal North Carolina, Delaware Bay, New Jersey and Long Island. With the recent closure of most river herring fisheries because of depleted stocks, menhaden are now critical for New England's lobster fishery. Though more spread out than the reduction fishery, the bait fishery supports more jobs.

How many menhaden do these human fisheries need? Several-hundred-thousand metric tons per year. According to peer-reviewed fishery science, though, the current stock stands at only 8 percent of an unfished population, the lowest point on record. Are we wise enough to back off before we crash it?

Consider these alarming statistics: Historically, they provided 70 percent of an adult rockfish's diet, but that number has fallen to 8 percent. The percentage for Chesapeake ospreys has fallen from 70 percent to 28 percent, causing serious chick mortality.

Clearly, a healthy menhaden stock is as vital to the Atlantic ecosystem as to humans. At 8 percent, there aren't enough to go around. What to do?

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission coordinates and enforces fishery management plans for menhaden from Florida to Maine. It includes three commissioners from each state and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. Last year, the ASMFC's commissioners took the unprecedented step of setting an overfishing threshold to allow the population to grow to 15 percent, with a management target of 30 percent.

This fall, the commissioners must decide how to reduce the catch without causing major harm to human fishermen and their communities while leaving enough for rockfish, bluefish, sea trout, ospreys, loons, gannets and marine mammals. It's a delicate balancing act. Like restoring the Chesapeake, if it were easy, we'd have done it long ago.

The ASMFC has held public hearings on the new management plan and is taking written comment through Nov. 16. You can play a valuable role by educating yourself and submitting comments. Public input played a key role in setting the threshold and target last year, and it will again.

For details, visit www.asmfc.org, where these is a link for submitting comments. For an issue summary and another comment link, visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation at www.cbf.org/menhaden.

We had enough wisdom to pull back on blue crabs five years ago. Today, the population is much healthier. It's time to give menhaden the same respect, for ourselves as well as fish, birds, crabs, and lobsters. Our Bay and Atlantic Coast won't be healthy without them.

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About Kim Coble

Kim Coble is acting vice president for environmental protection and restoration at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Read more articles by Kim Coble

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