The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has approved a three-year extension to its menhaden harvest cap in the Chesapeake Bay, extending the limit enacted in 2006 through 2013.

The original commercial harvest cap of 109,020 metric tons was set by the ASMFC's Menhaden Management Board as a "precautionary" action while studies were undertaken to determine wether the small, oily fish was suffering "localized depletion" in the Chesapeake.

Although the commission's stock assessments have consistently shown the menhaden stock is not overfished along the coast, many anglers and some scientists have contended that there are too few fish in the Bay to provide food for predators such as striped bass, or to provide other ecosystem services, such as filtering algae from the water.

Much of the research to answer that question is not completed, though, and Virginia officials sought the extension. Unlike other species, the menhaden catch is regulated by the Virginia General Assembly, and unless it could approve the extension when it meets in January, the cap would expire.

But the commission, which approved the extension in November, cut the original proposal for a five-year extension to three years, and said it would consider the need for additional actions each year. Conservation groups have been pressing for the ASMFC to incorporate ecosystem considerations into its management decisions.

The commission is responsible for managing migratory species along the Atlantic coast and includes representatives from all East Coast states and federal agencies.

"If the ASMFC sees this extension as just another three-year vacation from managing menhaden, then they're doing this fish and all the predators that depend on it a great disservice," said Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. "We'll continue to press them to keep the public's demand for a new approach, one that protects menhaden's role as prey, on the front burner."

Ron Lukens, the senior scientist for Omega Protein Corp., said the company supported the continuation of the cap for another three years to conduct research, although he said the menhaden population remains healthy. "We have seen a growing abundance of availability," he said.

Omega's catches have been well below the cap since it was established in 2006, leading some to say the reduced catches are the result of a shrinking population. "I can tell you factually that is not true. There are plenty of fish." Lukens said.

He also said that Omega has been catching larger fish, which contain more of the fish oil that the company seeks. Omega operates the menhaden fishing fleet out of Reedville, VA, and is the only company affected by the action.

Menhaden, measured by weight, are by far the largest commercial catch in the Bay. The fish are taken to the processing plant, where they are used to make products such as Omega 3 oils found in medicine.

Lukens said Omega recognizes the "tinder box situation" surrounding the menhaden operation. When the ASMFC originally considered a cap, it drew more than 26,000 comments-by far the most in its history-most of which supported the cap, or closing the fishery altogether. "We have fundamentally tried to avoid getting too close to the cap," Lukens said.