For the first time, fishery managers are poised to limit the amount of Atlantic menhaden that can be caught along the East Coast.

The small oily fish has been the center of a heated dispute for more than a decade, with recreational anglers and environmentalists contending that commercial harvests were leaving too few menhaden - a major source of food for striped bass and other species - for other fish to eat.

Measured by weight, the menhaden fishery is by far the largest in the Chesapeake, with about 85,000 metric tons caught in the Bay last year.

The industry has long countered claims of overfishing by pointing to stock assessments showing that the East Coast stock was in good shape. But that changed last year, when a new assessment concluded that overfishing had taken place in 2008, and that fishing levels had approached that mark in 32 of the previous 54 years.

In August, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which sets policy for species that migrate along the East Coast, proposed a revision to its menhaden management plan that could sharply cut menhaden catches and opened the plan for public comments.

"It was our most noteworthy progress to date at ASMFC on menhaden," said Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and one of Maryland's representatives on the commission. "We really haven't managed the menhaden fishery anywhere near the extent to which we have managed our other coastal fisheries."

The proposal would require that at least 15 percent of the spawning stock potential be allowed to survive to reproduce. In 2008, the ASMFC estimates that only 8 percent of the spawning stock had survived.

If approved, the change could require significantly reduced harvests. Had the 15 percent threshold been applied to the 2010 catch, it would have reduced landings by 23 percent, from a total coastwide harvest of about 227,000 metric tons to 174,332 metric tons.

In 2006, the commission limited the amount of menhaden that could be caught in the Chesapeake Bay, but if it adopts the change at its November meeting, it would be the first time the ASMFC has acted to reduce the menhaden catch along the entire coast.

The action would also change some of the focus on the menhaden fishery. Until now, most of the attention has been on Omega Protein, which operates the reduction fishery based in Reedville, VA. It nets large numbers of menhaden, which are taken to its factory where the fish are "reduced" into a variety of products, from dietary supplements to pet food.

Any new limits would affect not only Omega's reduction fishery, but also the growing menhaden bait fishery that takes place all along the coast, supplying fish for commercial and recreational fishers.

Omega spokesman Ben Landry said the ASMFC's proposal will make commission members and others aware that the impact of any new restrictions would be more widespread than many realize.

"The target is no longer squarely on Omega," Landry said. "Other people are going to be really affected by this, and it's not just fishermen that leave the dock every day and go fish for menhaden. It is the lobstermen, the crabber that depends on menhaden for bait."

Indeed, the draft amendment to the ASMFC's management plan cautions that a reduced catch will directly affect employment at Omega's Reedville plant, and that the bait fishery would be impacted, as well as recreational anglers who use menhaden as bait.

In 2010, the reduction harvest caught about 183,000 metric tons; the bait harvest took about 44,000 tons.

ASMFC is expected to act on the proposal at its November meeting. If it approves the change, it will only be the first step of the process to change menhaden management. The next step would be approving management actions to meet those harvest levels. Those could include, among other actions, limiting the number of trips and pounds that could be caught per trip; restricting the type of gear used in the fishery; closing certain areas during certain times of the year; or setting a total catch quota.

In addition, the commission would need to figure out how to divide the allowable catch between the reduction and bait fisheries.

That process would take much of next year, which means actual changes in the fishery would likely not take place until 2013, said Bob Beal, director of the ASMFC Interstate Fisheries Management Program.

Exactly what such changes would mean for the Bay is also unclear. Right now, the ASMFC restricts Omega's total catch in the Chesapeake to 122,740 metric tons a year. But that restriction is set to expire after 2013.

"The managers will have to make a decision whether to extend that cap, or to replace it with a different management program," Beal said.

Although they are not eaten by humans, menhaden have been the focus of one of the region's most heated fisheries debates over the last decade with conservation and recreational fishing groups contending that ASMFC management efforts have allowed too many menhaden to be harvested.

For years, ASMFC stock assessments had found the population to be in good shape, but the most recent assessment, which took into account new information, showed that overfishing had taken place in 2008 and in many years in the past. It also showed the population had been at persistently low levels for the last decade.

But the assessment model showed that fishing in 2008 exceeded the threshold by just 0.004 percent, and that while overfishing had taken place frequently in the past, it had not happened between 1999 and 2007. Because of that, Landry said he hoped the ASMFC would factor in more recent information before it ultimately sets catch limits.

"If this is truly a historic event, you are going to want to do it right, and not do it using just 2008 data if you have data from 2009, 2010 and 2011 available to you," Landry said. "I think that is going to be our major push going forward."

He said the industry is supporting menhaden surveys along areas of the coast which have not historically been examined to come up with a more complete population estimate.

Goldsborough, though, said the low numbers of menhaden reported in the stock assessment confirms the view of conservationists that there are simply too few menhaden to go around. If the proposed 15 percent threshold were applied to past years, he said, it would show that overfishing was taking place in 52 of the past 54 years.

"What we all suspected all along - at least those of us on our side of the ledger - is finally becoming apparent in the science," he said.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will be taking public comments on the draft amendment to its Menhaden Fishery Management Plan through Nov. 2. The draft is available on the commission's website,  

Public hearings are scheduled in states along the coast in September and October. Dates will be available on the commission's website when they are set.