East Coast fishery managers Monday rejected a proposal backed by conservation groups to start setting harvest limits for Atlantic menhaden based on their role as food for other fish and wildlife, not merely their commercial value.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission received nearly 160,000 public comments, more than 99 percent of which urged it to adopt the new harvest guidelines, or reference points, that would take the ecological role of the fish into account when setting catch limits. If adopted, the guidelines would almost certainly have required a reduction in the current coastwide menhaden catch limits of 200,000 metric tons.

While menhaden are not considered overfished — their abundance appears to be increasing along the East Coast, scientists say — conservation groups contend that current management does not adequately account for the importance of the small, oily fish as a food source for marine mammals, many birds, and a host of other fish, such as striped bass.

But critics — which included ASMFC’s own scientific advisors, as well as the commercial menhaden industry — said the reference points under consideration were based on studies of other species in other places and may not be applicable to menhaden.

The ASMFC has assembled a panel of scientists which is working to produce its own recommendations, tailored specifically to menhaden, which will take into account the fishes’ role as a food source. Those recommendations are not expected to be ready until 2019, though, and efforts in the past to account for the ecological role of menhaden have failed to meet deadlines.

Some members of the commission’s menhaden management board expressed skepticism that new recommendations would be ready on time and urged adoption of the new recommendations as interim measure.

“This provides an opportunity for the board to seriously commit to ecosystem management” and not “kick the can any further down the road,” said Andy Shiels, of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. He cited the wide support for establishing ecological reference points in public comments, and said “that has to have some weight from up and down the coast.”

Shiels drew applause from dozens of activists who attended the meeting outside Baltimore, many holding bright yellow signs that said “Little Fish Big Deal,” “Keep it Forage” or “Conserve Menhaden.”

But others urged giving scientists working on the menhaden-specific management recommendations time to complete their job.

“A lot of things take time,” said Rob O’Reilly of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, whose state now accounts for the vast majority of the coastwide menhaden catch. “We’ve got to do it right.”

Katie Drew, a stock assessment scientist with the commission, said she was “cautiously optimistic” the scientific panels’ recommendations would be ready in 2019 and that, in the meantime, evidence shows the menhaden stock is in good shape under current management.

“We would not advocate that if we thought that current single species management was detrimental to the health of the stock,” she said.

Ultimately, most of the commission — which includes representatives from all East Coast states as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — agreed.

By a vote of 13 to 5, the commission opted to wait two years for its scientists to develop their menhaden recommendations. Agencies that manage fisheries in Virginia, Maryland and the Potomac River all voted with the majority.

But environmental groups, which had worked hard to rally a record-setting number of comments in support of ecological reference points, were disappointed.

“We were very surprised by the vote today,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “When you hear that much support, and then the vote is against ecological reference points, that is a shock.”

But, he added, he was encouraged that commission members voiced broad support for adopting ecological catch guidelines when their own analysis is completed. “In two years, we are going to hold them to it,” Baker said.

About three quarters of the menhaden harvested along the East Coast are by a fishing fleet based in Reedville, VA, and operated by Omega Protein, which processes its harvest into animal feed and nutritional supplements. The rest of the fish are caught for bait by other operations spread along the coast.

Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega, said the company supported setting ecological reference points, but believed that they should be tailored to menhaden and not adopted from research done with other species.

“We were pleased by today’s decision,” he said. “It showed the commission chose to stay the course and not take an action that we think was not in the best interest of the stock,”

Landry said company executives “have full faith” in the science workgroup assembled by ASMFC to develop the reference points in the next two years. “These are the people that actually know more about menhaden than just about anybody. We have confidence in them.”