Conservationists, recreational anglers and commercial fishermen have long argued over just how many menhaden to leave in the water. In November, East Coast fishery managers - after years of debate - finally weighed in with an answer: They want the commercial fisheries to leave almost twice as many adult fish in the water to help maintain the menhaden population and provide adequate food for other species.

This November in Boston, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees fisheries management from Maine to Florida, set new population threshold and harvest targets for menhaden, which will begin reducing the catch in 2013.

Although the commission had previously limited the menhaden catch in the Bay, it was the first time it had acted to limit the coastwide catch of the small species that conservation groups have dubbed "the most important fish in the sea" because of its importance as food for striped bass and other predators.

The commission must still establish regulations to enforce the new limits and determine how to divide the allowable catch among commercial fishing operations, a process expected to take much of the next year. But over time, the move is expected to substantially increase the number of menhaden along the coast and in the Chesapeake.

The historic vote drew an unusually large, standing-room-only crowd, with many observers standing behind the commissioners themselves and others listening to the meeting through the open door from an equally packed anteroom.

In the audience were representatives from Omega Protein, the Reedville-based company that is responsible for 80 percent of East Coast menhaden landings. The Virginia company processes the fish into pet food, vitamin supplements and other products. Also present were commercial fishermen such as Jim Kellum, president of Ocean Bait, Inc., who attended the meeting to represent the interests of Virginia bait fishermen.

Recreational anglers came out, too, many hoping to see a vote to increase the menhaden stock.

Finally, conservation groups like Menhaden Defenders, The Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace, and Pew Environmental Group sat in on the historic meeting.

For decades, the commissioners - and these many interest groups - have struggled to answer the same question: Just how many menhaden do we really need? The commercial fishing industry once boasted 153 plants along the East Coast, with more than 20 plants in Maine alone. Now there is a single plant - Omega Protein's Reedville location. The bait industry gathers the remaining 20 percent of landings and plays a crucial role in supplying bait not only to recreational anglers, but also to lobstermen and crabbers.

In an effort to protect and increase the numbers of spawning adult menhaden, the commissioners had to decide on a new fishing "target" and new "threshold" for the species. First, they discussed whether to raise the fishing threshold, which is an absolute limit on catch which, if exceeded, compels managers to take further action to prevent overfishing. Second, they discussed whether to raise the fishing target; a more protective goal that would leave more fish unharvested.

Both benchmarks are expressed as a percentage of the maximum spawning potential, which essentially estimates the reproductive capacity of an unfished stock. Scientists estimate that the current population is at 8 percent MSP. That means about 8 percent of the adult population survives to spawn.

Jack Travelstead, a commissioner from Virginia and the chief of fisheries for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the agency that oversees saltwater fish management in that state, surprised many members of the audience when he announced that Virginia would support raising the fishing threshold to 15 percent of MSP. Because the Virginia legislature manages menhaden (whereas the Virginia Marine Resources Commission oversees every other saltwater species), the state has long been seen as supportive of the commercial fishery. The measure to raise the fishing threshold to 15 percent of MSP passed swiftly.

The second vote-whether to raise the fishing target-kept audience members on the edges of their seats. Maryland commissioners moved to raise the fishing target to 30 percent of MSP, at which time Jack Travelstead gave an impassioned plea to fellow commissioners to consider the economic impact of raising the target, which would necessarily mean a significant reduction in commercial harvest. He argued that the latest data seem to suggest that the current fishing target was acceptable and made a motion to set the fishing target at 20 percent of MSP, which was quickly defeated. This put Maryland's motion to raise the target back on the table. In the end, the motion to raise the fishing target to 30 percent of MSP passed with wide support, 14 to 3, with only Virginia, New Jersey and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission dissenting.

The exact level of fishery reductions required won't be known until the ASMFC crafts rules to implement the changes next year. Had they been in place last year, an MSP of 15 would have reduced the coastwide catch by about 23 percent, while an MSP of 30 would have reduced the catch by about 37 percent. But these numbers could change, depending on how rules are written, and because a new assessment of the stock's health is due in 2012. Fishery officials expect new rules will first seek to achieve the MSP of 15, and move toward attaining the more protective target over the next one to five years.

Most of the audience members welcomed the votes. Capt. Paul Eidman, a recreational fly fishing guide in Sandy Hook, NJ, responded, "I can't believe we won. I can't believe the commission actually did the right thing for the resource."

Peter Baker, director of Northeast Fisheries at Pew Environmental Group, agreed: "Today's vote is a welcome step for a fish that hasn't caught a break since Dwight Eisenhower was president."

Jerry Benson, a member of the Menhaden Coalition, a grass-roots public-information organization, commented, "The ASMFC's action to rebuild the critical menhaden stock is long overdue, but most welcome. The menhaden resource has been declining for years, and the newly adopted standards will help reverse that alarming trend."

Some conservationists have argued that the stock level should be brought into line with other forage stocks, with an unfished stock as high as 45 percent.

Commercial anglers were less enthusiastic about the outcome of the second vote, which will mean significant cuts in commercial landings. "We need to have a common sense approach to menhaden management," Jim Kellum said. "We need to make these management decisions on the basis of science and not politics."

Members of the public sent more than 90,000 comments to the commissioners during the comment period preceding the vote, and 95 percent of these comments favored curtailing commercial landings.

No company will feel the pinch more than Omega Protein, the largest menhaden harvester in North America. Company spokesman Ben Landry said, "Omega Protein had accepted the fact that there would be some degree of sacrifice, so we had become comfortable with setting the fishing threshold at 15 percent MSP. This measure translates to a 23 percent reduction in harvest from the 2010 harvest figures, and menhaden scientists indicate that this would be sufficient in doubling the coastwide population of menhaden." Nevertheless, he said the company was "disappointed" by the vote, arguing that the ASMFC has set a fishing target that "has never been reached by the industry in the entire time series dating back to 1954." Commercial anglers believe that the new standards will cripple an already hard-pressed industry.

The action was spurred by a 2010 stock assessment that concluded that the population was near an all-time low and that overfishing was taking place in 2008, the last year reviewed in the assessment. Efforts to curb fishing are intended to give more menhaden a chance to reproduce, which in theory should help the stock grow over time. The stock assessment, though, found little link between the numbers of eggs produced by the menhaden stock and future population levels.