The Atlantic menhaden is one of the most important fish species, both economically and ecologically, in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast. This commentary is intended to help explain the process and the scientific efforts behind the management of the Atlantic menhaden fishery, coastwide and within the Chesapeake Bay.

The fishery management process can be somewhat complex because of the various jurisdictions and mandates involved in the decision-making process, which includes coordinating a variety of groups — state and federal, managers and scientists — and can be somewhat difficult to understand, especially in the Bay, and, depending on the species involved.

The regional management councils (On the Atlantic Coast, this includes the New England, Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils.) have management authority, under the Magnuson Steven Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, over fisheries within the Exclusive Economic Zone from three to 200 miles offshore

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission coordinates the management of fisheries for species that migrate into and through Atlantic Coastal state waters out to three miles offshore, under the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act.

The National Marine Fisheries Service participates in the ASMFC management process and has the authority to close state fisheries if the ASMFC finds the state out of compliance with ASMFC management requirements.

The states have individual jurisdiction over fish stocks that reside solely in their state waters.

Chesapeake Bay fishery management plans (FMPs) are prepared under the direction of the Chesapeake Bay Program and serve as a framework or guide for the Bay states to conserve certain fish stocks that occur throughout the Bay.

Atlantic menhaden are migratory and move across multiple state jurisdictions and beyond the Bay, and thus the ASMFC has management responsibility for this species. Because the menhaden fishery operates predominantly in state waters — only 11 percent of the total landings (averaged from 1996–2000) are outside three miles — the fishery management councils have not initiated FMP development in the Exclusive Economic Zone, nor have they indicated their intent to develop a plan. Until such time that a council does decide to assume management of menhaden in the EEZ, the ASMFC will continue to manage the fishery under the authority of the Atlantic Coastal Act.

Atlantic menhaden have been managed under the ASMFC’s 1992 Fishery Management Plan until recently.

In 1999, based on concerns over declines in the Atlantic menhaden population and apparent reductions in the forage fish base in the Chesapeake Bay, the ASMFC began the development of Amendment I to the FMP to implement an improved framework for the menhaden management process.

In addition, concerns had been expressed over the composition of both the Menhaden Management Board and its technical advisory committee within the ASMFC. Unlike other species management boards, industry representatives participated on the management board.

The development of Amendment I included an extensive peer review of the science and management practices that had been used to manage menhaden to that point.

The Atlantic menhaden spawning stock is currently considered healthy, although there has been a decline in recruitment (age-0, young menhaden) over the last 10 years. The overall spawning stock biomass (the total weight of mature fish in the population) is above the spawning stock biomass threshold and slightly below the spawning stock biomass target, but is expected to decline over the next few years unless the trend in recruitment is reversed.

There has also been a general decline in the total stock size (numbers and biomass), concurrent with the decline in recruitment.

Fishing mortality, or the rate at which menhaden are removed from the population by fishing activities, was estimated to be below its target level needed to protect the menhaden stock in 2000.

The spawning stock biomass was well above its defined target level needed to maintain enough fish to provide for good reproduction.

Therefore, the Atlantic menhaden stock is not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring.

The information on poor recruitment is of concern, even though there are some signs of improving recruitment in the northern range of the species. It is believed that the poor recruitment is a result of poor survivorship of age-0 menhaden — potentially the result of predation, although the role of environmental conditions in menhaden recruitment is not precisely understood.

Amendment I to the menhaden FMP was adopted by the ASMFC in April 2001. This amendment provides a framework for future management with the goal of “managing the fishery in a manner that is biologically, economically, socially and ecologically sound, while protecting the resource and those who benefit from it.”

One of the key provisions in Amendment I is a new overfishing definition that will be used as a benchmark for developing future management measures. The new overfishing definition employs a target and threshold approach for assessing the status of the population, similar to the management process recently adopted for blue crab in Chesapeake Bay.

Future management measures will be developed to ensure that fishing mortality remains at or below the target rate, and that the spawning stock is maintained at or above the biomass target level.

Amendment I also contains a provision for additional reporting requirements to ensure that there is a full accounting of the menhaden fishery. At present, the ASMFC Menhaden Management Board is reluctant to put more restrictions on this fishery as it is not considered to be overfished.

Finally, Amendment I restructures the ASMFC Menhaden Management Board by adopting a structure similar to that of all the other ASMFC management boards. Industry representatives will no longer participate as members of the Menhaden Management Board.

Also, separate technical and advisory committees were formed to provide input and advice to the management board. The technical committee is composed of state and federal scientists familiar with menhaden biology, while the states will nominate representatives to the Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Panel. The advisers may be industry representatives from, but not limited to, the reduction fishery, menhaden bait fishermen, recreational fishermen or environmental interests.

Some references have recently been made to the financial services provided by the NMFS to Omega Protein, the leading menhaden harvester and processor.

The NMFS Financial Services Program provides longer-term loans at slightly lower interest rates than many private lenders. This stretching of the fisheries debt is more consistent with fishing’s cyclical economics and can contribute to a more financially stable fishing industry, one which is better able to accommodate appropriate conservation and management measures.

The NMFS’ fisheries financing program has for decades been capacity-neutral; and is now, in its buyback financing role, also capacity reductive. The Financial Services Program is self-supporting and is not a net user of taxpayer resources. This program does not finance projects that increase harvesting capacity.

In the late 1980s, the NMFS financed the refurbishment of three shoreside facilities and 18 vessels owned by Omega Protein’s predecessor.

None of those loans, which totaled $22.5 million, were used to finance new menhaden harvesting capacity. Instead, the loans refurbished used menhaden vessels and shoreside facilities that already existed and helped to improve vessel safety and reliability, improve product quality, and meet emission and other regulatory requirements.

This year, two other used menhaden vessels were to be refurbished using funds from this program.

Over the past several years, state and federal fisheries management agencies have investigated multispecies or ecosystem approaches to fisheries management. The recent Chesapeake 2000 Agreement states that by 2004, the Bay Program will develop ecosystem-based multispecies management plans for targeted species.

Developing multispecies and ecosystem approaches to fisheries management, including the completion of necessary models and assessments, will not be easy. Single-species management is already difficult; ecosystem and multispecies management is much more difficult. However, substantial progress can and has been made in understanding multispecies interactions and how those interactions can be integrated into the decision making process.

Several multispecies studies are under way along the Atlantic Coast and specifically in the Bay.

One study, funded through the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, is the development of a multispecies assessment model focused on the relationship between Atlantic menhaden and its key predator species: striped bass, weakfish and bluefish. This multispecies model is a modification of the single species assessment method traditionally used to provide management advice for menhaden. Using this model, simulations and projections can be conducted to examine the effects of predation on population abundance and overall mortality of menhaden.

This model, developed by Drs. Lance Garrison and Jason Link, will provide fishery managers with information on the balance between natural and fishing mortality, predation and the overall effects on population abundance of the Atlantic menhaden.

Also under way is the development of a Chesapeake Bay ecosystem model using the EcoPath with EcoSim modeling software, ( This approach is designed to quantify relationships at various trophic levels of the ecosystem and will also provide a tool for exploring policy options for an ecosystem-based management of fisheries.

These activities and numerous others within the Bay, along the Atlantic Coast and nationally, are only the first steps in gaining a better understanding of the connectedness among species within an entire ecosystem.

The various management entities have a long way to go before moving away from single-species plans. The NMFS and the states will continue to investigate the available options in multispecies fisheries management and will incorporate these results as they are scientifically reviewed and accepted through the management process.