For the first time in its 70-year history, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission placed a limit on menhaden catches, capping a years-long and often contentious battle between commercial and recreational fishermen over how to manage the oily baitfish.

The commission voted to reduce by 20 percent the amount of menhaden fishermen could catch along the entire coast, amounting to a total allowable catch of 170,800 metric tons a year.

Each state would be in charge of managing its own menhaden fishery within that limit, and each would be responsible for deciding how to divide the catch between the bait fishery or the reduction fishery. Each state's limit would be based on their menhaden landings in the last few years.

The limits are effective immediately and will be revisited in three years. By then, scientists expect to have completed a new stock assessment and will have more information on the population's status. The commission, which manages migratory fish in state waters, includes fishery managers from East Coast states as well as other interests from each state, including commercial fishermen, environmental conservationists and scientists.

The historic decision, made at a special meeting in Baltimore, came after several hours of dry discussion on motions and appropriate parliamentary procedure that was occasionally punctuated by passionate pleas to save jobs and to save the fish.

Virginia has the last remaining active reduction fishery on the coast, Omega Protein in Reedville. It employs about 250 workers in its Reedville plant, many of them members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Omega takes about 80 percent of the coast's catch of menhaden, most of it captured in the Chesapeake or very near it in the Atlantic Ocean. It is the largest commercial fishery in the Bay, by far, with the most tons of fish taken.

The bait fishery, which supplies menhaden used as bait to commercial and recreational fishermen, takes the remaining 20 percent. The catch is divided among fishermen in all the coastal states and accounts for hundreds of full– or part-time fishing jobs. The bait fishery has been steadily growing coastwide.

But the recreational fishing industry employs even more people than the reduction and bait fisheries, and the recreational fishermen are passionate about saving the menhaden — a mainstay in the diet of striped bass and one reason scientists believe the larger fish are in such distress.

At one point, as Virginia Commissioner Jack Travelstead lobbied for a more modest cut to the fishery of 10 percent, hundreds of people stood up, holding yellow signs to show their support for menhaden conservation. A few dozen United Food and Commercial Workers union members then circled them and eventually stood in front of them. The Maryland Natural Resources Police, at the meeting to maintain order, eventually asked everyone to sit down, but not before a couple of heated exchanges.

For Omega, which reduces the oily menhaden into fish oil supplements and many other products, the catch limit was a bitter pill. But it was not nearly as disastrous as it could have been. Going into the meeting, a 50 percent cut was on the table, and a 25 percent reduction was the preferred option of several commissioners as the scientific reports said that cut would return the fish to sustainable levels.

Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the 20 percent cut was "a gamble, but a good first step." The foundation has advocated for limits on the menhaden fishery for more than a decade, and its senior scientist, Bill Goldsborough, serves on the commission.

"The thrust of this argument has been, it's about jobs, but the only way to have a fishery is to stop overfishing," Baker said.

Environmental groups, including the CBF, have interpreted the science to say that menhaden are only at 8 percent of their historic levels, although that is based on a theoretical unfished population.

Baker said that history has shown us that we ignore signs of distress in a fishery at our peril. With blue crabs and rockfish, Baker said, we took action and saved the species, noting that with sturgeon and shad, the signs were there, but nobody acted in time.

"When do you want to take action? Four percent? Two percent?" Baker asked. "Shad and sturgeon are stories of failures to act, and look what's happened to them."

For the Reedville operation, the cut will likely mean two fewer vessels in the water, said Ben Landry, Omega's spokesman. He would not say how many layoffs that would entail, but acknowledged the company was going to have to make some "operational adjustments." Still, that situation is preferable to having to close entirely, which Landry said is what the 50 percent option would have meant and the 25 percent could have as well.

"Twenty-five would have been awful tough; 20 gives us an opportunity to remain viable," Landry said. "This is clearly a blow to the hard-working people of Reedville, but we'll do our best to make it through. I don't think it was justified in the face of great uncertainty."

The commission has been wrestling with whether, and how, to limit the menhaden harvest amid continuing signs — but not a lot of clear data — that the population was in distress.

The Omega operation uses spotter planes to locate schools of menhaden, then scoops them up in huge purse seines that are illegal in nearly every other coastal state. Recreational fishermen have long complained that they're seeing far fewer menhaden. The fish that depend on menhaden for their diet, striped bass chief among them in the Bay, are getting skinnier and, in some cases, developing lesions.

But the science couldn't prove that overfishing was occurring in most years, and Omega's influence thwarted management steps. In Virginia, menhaden is the only fishery managed by the legislature and not the Virginia Marine Resources commission, and the legislature has been reluctant to make any cuts to the harvest.

The commission took some action in 2006, capping just Omega's Chesapeake Bay harvest at what it had been the previous year. But Omega never again reached the 109,020 metric ton cap, and recreational fishermen complained that the provision was inadequate. At the December meeting, the commissioners voted to keep the cap in place with a 20 percent cut to it as well.

In November 2011, a stock assessment showed that overfishing was occurring, and the commission's Menhaden Management Board agreed for the first time to place coastwide catch limits on menhaden. The commission also agreed to raise the threshold level of fish that make it to spawn to 15 percent, with a target of 30 percent. The target is the goal, the ideal to which the fishery will be managed, and the threshold is the number at which the menhaden stock is in peril.

But an update to the assessment using computer-generated models left the board uncertain about how much overfishing was occurring. As a result, Omega and other industry groups argued, the board should only cut the harvest by 10 percent.

Travelstead and fellow Virginia commissioner Jimmy Kellum, a commercial menhaden harvester, lobbied for the 10 percent, and when that failed, they tried for 15 percent and 17.5 percent. They also tried to phase in the limits, with 15 percent the first year and 20 percent the second.

Travelstead, who is commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said he wasn't comfortable with such a deep cut given the inconclusive science. All he was asking for, he said, was to delay the most drastic cuts until the next stock assessment provides more information. But despite his opposition to the larger cut, Travelstead agreed some sort of action on menhaden was long overdue.

"This is the first time we've finally decided to act on menhaden," he said. "We should have had a total allowable catch in place years ago. Maybe if we did, we wouldn't be here now."

Highlights of Menhaden Actions

On Dec. 14, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met in Baltimore to set limits for the menhaden catch for the first time in history. Here are highlights of their meeting:

  • 20 percent reduction in the menhaden harvest coastwide is based on 2009–2011 harvest levels for each state.
  • The total allowable cap is effective immediately and will be in place for the spring 2013 menhaden season.
  • Each state is given a quota.
  • States will manage their own total allowable catches as opposed to regions, or a coastwide management.
  • States will close their fisheries when their total allowable catch is reached; they will pay any overages back the next year.
  • States can transfer their quotas to other states.
  • States are allowed a bycatch of 6,000 pounds for non-directed fisheries operating after the quota has been met.
  • The bycatch will not count against the quota.
  • One percent of the total allowable catch is set aside for episodic events — times or areas where Atlantic menhaden are available in more abundance than they normally occur.
  • The Chesapeake Bay menhaden cap of 109,020 metric tons, which was to expire in 2013, remains in place, with a 20 percent cut.