Amid growing concern about the health of the Atlantic menhaden stock, the coastal agency responsible for the oily fish will launch a series of public meetings this summer as part of an effort to overhaul the fishes’ management.

And a Maryland congressman said he would soon introduce legislation calling for a federal study to examine the health of the menhaden stock, much as the federal government supported research on striped bass when its population went into a tailspin nearly two decades ago. That study ultimately led to the efforts credited with striped bass recovery in the Bay and along the coast.

“Within a couple of weeks we can get a bill drafted,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, after a meeting with fishermen, scientists and state and federal officials in May. “This thing could be out of the House by July.”

The study is also likely to examine whether the decline of menhaden is adversely affecting fish that rely on it for food, such as striped bass, weakfish and bluefish. It is also likely to examine its ecological role. Like oysters, menhaden are important filter feeders that consume large amounts of algae, improving water quality.

Concern about menhaden has been growing for nearly two years as the number of fish in the coastal population has declined to its lowest level on record. Recruitment — the number of young fish that survive long enough to enter the population — has been low for years for reasons no one understands, although environmental factors are thought to play a major role.

Some scientists believe the decline in menhaden has affected striped bass in the Bay. An ongoing study by the University of Maryland Eastern Shore has found that menhaden only account for about half as much of the striped bass diet as was the case in 1993. Striped bass also are growing slower, and some fish in parts of the Bay are developing lesions.

“All over, I’ve already got reports of lesioned fish and fish in poor conditions,” said Jim Price, president of the Chesapeake Bay Acid Rain Foundation, who has been raising concerns about the menhaden situation and its potential impact on the prized rockfish population. “It’s looking like a bad year already.”

But the status of the menhaden stock remains a hazy picture. Even as recruitment has suffered, the reproductive potential of the stock remains at a near record high. That is based on estimates of the number of large, old fish in the population, which can produce a lot more eggs than younger fish.

“It looks like the stock is hanging in there, in terms of the spawning capability,” said Doug Vaughan, a National Marine Fisheries Service scientist who prepares the annual assessment of the menhaden stock. “It’s just a question of getting some decent recruitment.”

Without better reproduction, Vaughan said the spawning population will also decline. His figures for last year show that the estimated menhaden spawning stock decreased to 73,000 metric tons from 102,000 metric tons in 1997.

Because the spawning potential remains high, the multistate Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which oversees menhaden management, recommended no limit on the amount of menhaden caught in the commercial fishery this year.

That put it at odds with the recommendations of an independent scientific peer review panel which recently evaluated the menhaden situation for the ASMFC. That panel said that menhaden appeared to be in a long-term, coastwide decline and said limits should have been imposed on the catch last year.

“We really are experiencing serious consequences right now, and the question is: Are they liable to continue or get worse?” said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “I think we have enough to go on from the peer review to begin to take action.”

The peer review panel made other recommendations, such as setting quotas on the total catch, revamping the “triggers” used to monitor the status of the stock, and taking the ecological role of menhaden into account in management decisions.

Measured by pounds, the menhaden catch is the largest fishery in the Chesapeake, averaging around 150,000 metric tons a year. But over the years, the menhaden catch has increasingly been concentrated in the Bay as some states have closed their waters to catching menhaden. Some believe that part of the Bay’s problem could be relieved by better spreading out the catch along the coast.

Menhaden are a commercially valuable source of fish oil and other products.

Exactly what changes should be made to menhaden management will be hashed out over the next year as the ASMFC amends its management strategy.

That process will begin with a series of public meetings expected to take place from mid-July through August and culminate in a revised management plan in fall 2000.

But that time frame is too long for some. Several officials, concerned that management actions won’t change until the plan is revised, expressed concern about the timetable during their meeting with Gilchrest.

The congressman plans to write a letter, which he hopes to get other Maryland representatives to sign onto, urging that the ASMFC speed up the process.