Big changes are being weighed for Atlantic menhaden, the little, oily fish that no one eats but that stirs such passion. At least one of the possible shifts could reverse recent increases in the allowable commercial catch.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates near-shore fishing from Maine to Florida — including the Chesapeake Bay — has invited public comment on several questions about future management of the menhaden fishery at hearings all along the coast. Sessions in the Bay watershed begin Monday, Dec. 5.

The most important issue under consideration involves setting new “reference points” regulating the catch of menhaden that would account for their value to other fish and predators — not just their commercial importance. But the commission also is weighing whether to shake up how the total catch is distributed along the coast.

Though generally not caught to be eaten, menhaden are netted in great numbers for processing into animal feed and health supplements, and for use as bait to catch crabs, striped bass and other fish. They are the largest catch, by weight, in the Bay. The small waterfront village of Reedville, VA — home to the menhaden fleet of Omega Protein Corp. — ranks sixth nationwide in fish landings, by weight, after a handful of ports in Alaska and Louisiana.

But menhaden are also an important food source for other fish, including striped bass, and for predators such as osprey, bald eagles, whales and dolphins. Conservationists, recreational anglers and many biologists have long expressed concerns about the impact of the commercial menhaden catch — especially Omega’s — on the availability of forage for other species, leading to intense debates over fishery management.

In 2012, the Atlantic States commission imposed a first-ever coastwide catch reduction of 20 percent for menhaden after a scientific assessment concluded they were overfished. A followup study using new models and information concluded last year that the earlier assessment was wrong. The commission has responded by twice ratcheting up annual catch limits, with a 6.5 percent increase approved in October, allowing for 200,000 metric tons to be caught coastwide in 2017.

Now, the commission is trying to come up with new “ecological reference points” which, if adopted, would impose catch limits on menhaden that would ensure enough are left in the water to sustain other species that feed on them. Scientists have come up with general guidelines for protecting some other forage species. For instance, Pacific Coast fishery managers use them in setting a catch cutoff for sardines.

But a workgroup set up last year by the Atlantic states commission has expressed concerns about the applicability to menhaden of general guidelines for regulating other forage species. Menhaden aren’t as vital to the diet of other East Coast species as forage fish in some other settings, the group noted. In any event, developing ecological guidelines specific to menhaden may take until 2019, the group has said.

As a result, the Atlantic States commission is seeking public comment on whether to apply general forage species guidelines or continue with the effort to tailor an approach specific to menhaden. And if the effort is to continue, the commission is weighing whether to set some interim limits until the workgroup has finished its task. (It’s also taking input on a “no-action” option, asking if it should drop the ecological reference point idea altogether and keep setting catch limits focused only on ensuring the sustainability of the menhaden stock.)

Conservation and recreational fishing groups are urging the commission to set interim ecologically based limits now, using existing scientific guidelines for other forage species.

“We want to make sure we have forage out there so it can support a whole host of commercial and recreational fisheries,” said Chris Moore, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It also “ensures there are enough menhaden in the water to fulfill their role in the food chain for the protection of all marine life,” he explained in an email to foundation supporters.

Commercial fishing interests, though, want to wait until 2019 to see what the workgroup comes up with. Ben Landry, spokesman for Omega Protein, called it premature to adopt ecological guidelines for regulating the menhaden fishery before the issue has been thoroughly studied. He noted that even with the recent increases approved by the commission, the catch is still below what scientists say is sustainable.

Conservationists also want the commission to consider changing the allocation of the commercial catch by increasing the share of menhaden that could be caught for use as bait, which could reduce the allocation for Omega’s operation. Virginia has gotten 85 percent of the allowable catch to date because of the historically large role in the fishery of the Omega fleet.

“Controls on fishing mortality have helped expand the range of menhaden since 2012,” said David Sikorski, government relations chairman for Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, “and managers should be careful to ensure that future allocation decisions are made to provide the greatest benefit to the most people within the historic range of the species.”

Omega’s Landry said he sympathizes with fishermen in other states who feel they’ve gotten a “raw deal” under the current allocation based on historical catches. But he contended it would be unfair — “political mischief at its worst” — to reduce the catch in Virginia just to increase catches elsewhere, especially when the most recent stock evaluation showed that the total allowable harvest could be even higher without threatening the sustainability of the menhaden population.

One other issue up for discussion is of particular importance to the Bay, where the Omega fleet’s catch has been limited for a decade. Prompted by concerns that the Bay-based Omega fleet may be depleting menhaden stocks in the Chesapeake and harming striped bass and other predators, the Atlantic States commission in 2006 imposed a Bay catch cap on Omega of 87,216 metric tons. 

The fleet’s landings from Chesapeake waters since then have consistently been below the cap, with 50,000 metric tons reported last year. Meanwhile, a study requested by the commission found no evidence of a localized depletion of menhaden in the Bay. Now, the commission wants to know whether to keep the cap.

Conservation groups not only want to keep the Bay cap, but to cut the allowable catch in half.

“There are significant questions that are unresolved about the forage base in the Chesapeake Bay,” said CBF’s Moore. Even though the Omega fleet hasn’t caught its limit in the Bay, menhaden abundance has remained low, he pointed out.

Omega’s Landry, though, argued that because the commission’s study couldn’t find proof that menhaden were depleted in the Bay, reducing the catch cap there is “political, not science-based.

“We’ll oppose any measure that’s not science-based,” he said.

Here are the dates and locations of hearings in the Bay watershed on the draft Amendment 3 to the coastwide menhaden management plan. All hearings are to run from 6–8 p.m.

Monday, Dec. 5: Virginia Marine Resources Commission, 2600 Washington Ave., 4th floor, Newport News, VA.

Tuesday, Dec. 6: Potomac River Fisheries Commission, Carpenter Building, 222 Taylor St., Colonial Beach, VA.

Wednesday, Dec. 7: Maryland Department of Natural Resources, at Calvary United Methodist Church 301 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis, MD.

For those unable to attend the hearings, public comment will be accepted until 5 PM EST on Jan. 4, 2017.  Send comments to Megan Ware, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland St, Suite A‐N, Arlington, VA 22201.  Comments also can be faxed to 703.842.0741 or emailed to (Subject line: Menhaden PID).