The 2006 commercial menhaden catch in the Chesapeake Bay fell to its lowest level in decades, although overall Atlantic catches increased last year as commercial boats found many schools of larger fish off the coast.

Fisheries officials in January said preliminary figures indicate that about 65,000 metric tons of the oily fish were harvested in the Chesapeake last year, down from about 98,000 metric tons in 2005, and well below the 109,020 metric ton average between 2001 and 2005.

But overall Atlantic catches, which include the Bay figures, increased from 146,000 metric tons in 2005 to an estimated 157,000 metric tons last year, according to figures presented to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates catches of migratory fish.

Joe Smith, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who tracks menhaden landings, said the Virginia-based commercial fishing fleet found menhaden to be scarce in the Bay in both the spring and fall.

They had better luck in Virginia ocean waters off the Eastern shore and Virginia Beach as well as federal waters more than three miles off the Mid-Atlantic coast where they found larger, older fish. “There was a tremendous showing of fish off Delaware and Jersey this year,” Smith said. “It doesn’t happen like that every year.”

In contrast, about half of the fish caught in the Bay consisted of smaller 1-year-old fish, Smith said. The industry usually targets larger, 2-year-old fish in the Chesapeake.

Smith said the large number of age-1 fish in 2006 may mean that production of young menhaden was high in 2005. “That, to me, signals a pretty strong year class coming through,” he said. “They should be back as twos this summer, and we may see more of our ‘normal’ distribution like we’ve seen in the previous decade or so with the majority of catches being twos in the Bay.”

Fishing in the Chesapeake by Omega Protein has become increasingly controversial as many recreational fishermen, and some scientists, say its Reedville, VA-based fishing fleet has reduced the Bay’s menhaden population, which are an important food source for striped bass.

The ASMFC’s menhaden stock assessment shows the coastwide population to be healthy, but the commission last year imposed an annual cap of 109,020 metric tons for the Bay, a number derived from the average of harvests from 2001–2005, while scientists study whether the fishery is causing “localized depletion” in the Chesapeake.

The fishery has become increasingly concentrated in the Bay over the last two decades, with as much as 75 percent of the total East Coast landings coming out of the Chesapeake in some years.

Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—one of a coalition of groups that has supported restrictions on Bay menhaden catches—said he believes the low 2006 reflected ongoing low abundance in the Bay, which he said is likely to continue.

“My sense is that the stock in the Bay is down on average and is continuing downward, and they won’t reach the cap this year, either,” he said.

When the fishery catches less than the cap, it is allowed to make up for the shortfall the following year, up to a maximum catch of 122,740 metric tons—which is how much can be caught in the Bay this year. If that number is reached, further catches will have to come from Virginia ocean waters or federal waters off the coast—most states have closed their waters to the menhaden fleet.

Measured by weight, menhaden are the largest commercial catch in the Bay. The cap only affects the “reduction fishery” operated by Omega Protein, which processes large numbers of menhaden into animal feed and other products. It does not affect smaller operations that catch the fish for bait.