A regional fish management agency moved to limit the catch of menhaden in the Chesapeake while stepping up research to determine why the Bay seems to have fewer of the small, oily fish than in the past.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted 12 to 2 in August to impose the first-ever cap on the Bay’s largest commercial fishery.

The vote divided the Bay states, with Maryland making the motion to limit the catch while Virginia—home base to the largest menhaden fleet on the coast—opposed the action. Joining Virginia in opposing the action was North Carolina, which is home to a smaller menhaden fleet.

Although ASMFC’s stock assessment indicates that the coastwide menhaden population is healthy, others—including conservation and recreational fishing groups—contend the Bay population is suffering from “localized depletion” because of fishing by Reedville, VA-based Omega Protein.

They said the fishing fleet was not leaving enough menhaden to feed striped bass and other predators, or to filter algae out of the Bay’s water. Fishermen have increasingly complained about skinny striped bass in recent years, and scientists have found more than half of the rockfish population to be infected with mycobacteriosis, a potentially fatal disease.

Richard Novotny, director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportsman Association, said the decision was the “first step in the right direction.” Supporters described the action as precautionary to keep the situation from worsening while research is conducted.

Industry representatives said the action was unjustified, pointing to ASMFC’s own stock assessment, which found the overall menhaden stock to be healthy.

“By passing guidelines not based on science, the commission has abandoned this industry and their congressional mandate,” said Toby Gascon, governmental affairs director for Omega Protein. “Today represents a sad day in fisheries management.”

The industry employs about 250 people in Reedville, making it the largest employer in the area. Company officials in the past had suggested they would consider legal action if ASMFC imposed a cap without additional research, and Gascon said Omega would “review our options and move forward from there.”

The action followed a flood of public comments. The commission received more than 26,000 comments—more than 5,300 written comments and more than 20,400 e-mails on the issue, and they overwhelming urged the commission to curb menhaden catches.

The cap of about 106,000 metric tons a year will go into effect in 2006 and remain in place for five years while more research is completed to determine whether the Chesapeake menhaden population is being depleted by the fishery. The cap was based on the average industry harvest in the Bay over the past 5 years.

Prior to adopting that cap, the commission rejected, on a 6 to 10 vote, a voluntary cap proposed by the industry of 131,000 metric tons a year in the Bay. Omega representatives had pledged to place that limit in effect now—a year sooner than the commission called for—and vowed to cooperate with research efforts.

The commission is in charge of managing migratory fish along the East Coast, and includes representatives from all of the coastal states, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Menhaden have been used for decades in animal feed, but recently the Omega-3 fatty acids found in the fish oil have found popularity as a diet supplement believed to have certain human health benefits.

Measured by weight, menhaden have been the Bay’s largest catch for decades. Surveys have shown near-record low numbers of young menhaden in the Bay for more than a decade. But scientists say it is unclear if the industry is to blame for the low numbers of small menhaden found in the Bay, noting that other factors, such as climate, may be limiting production or that the Chesapeake’s increased abundance of hungry striped bass may be taking too large a bite out of the population.

It’s unclear whether the population of larger menhaden in the Bay has changed much over the years, as the fish migrate along the coast, moving in and out of the Chesapeake.

To answer those and other questions, NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office and ASMFC agreed on $1.2 million in research that will begin soon. When combined with studies being done by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the total amount of spending on menhaden research could hit $1.5 million a year.

The research will address fundamental questions such as determining the abundance of menhaden in the Bay, determining how many are consumed by predators such as striped bass, evaluating the movement of menhaden in and out of the Bay and examining factors affecting the number of young menhaden entering the Bay each year.

Several elements of the research plan are in doubt, though, because they require cooperation from the industry. The two federal agencies on the commission supported the industry’s proposal, and abstained on the vote that was eventually approved. Agency officials expressed concern that the research efforts would be hampered without participation by the industry.

Also in question is what will happen in Virginia. Unlike other marine species, which are managed by the VMRC, menhaden management is governed by the General Assembly, which will have to approve ASMFC’s action when it meets next January.

The General Assembly in 1995 voted to withdraw from the commission over disagreements about fisheries management, but later repealed the measure.

“I don’t know where Virginia will end up on compliance with this management plan,” Jack Travelstead, the VMRC’s chief of fisheries management who also chairs the ASMFC menhaden management board. “It is unfortunate we have ended up where we have today.”

If the commission deemed the state out of compliance with its fishery management requirements, it could ask the U.S. Commerce Secretary to impose a moratorium on Virginia fisheries.

But some believe the action may not improve the health of the Bay because it did not also deal with the record high striped bass abundance in the Bay, which consume large numbers of menhaden and other fish.

“You can’t solve the Bay’s problems by dealing with one species.” said Jim Price, president of the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation, who supported limits on the menhaden catch, as well as an increase in striped bass catches to reduce their population in the Bay.