The recent decline of menhaden, an important source of food for striped bass and other predatory fish, is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, according to a panel of scientists who reviewed the management of the coastal fish.

The scientists also said it was “inappropriate” that coastal fisheries managers failed to limit the commercial menhaden catch last year despite continuing evidence of reproduction problems in the population.

They called for overhauling the way the small, oily fish is managed in the future, including the establishment of the first-ever catch quotas for menhaden. They also said the ecological role of menhaden should be taken into account when those quotas are set.

The scientists were assembled by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which develops management plans for migratory fish along the East Coast, to conduct the first independent peer-review of menhaden management in the wake of growing concerns about the health of the stock.

Menhaden reproduction has been poor for several years, triggering a decline in the overall population. Some have speculated that the lack of menhaden could be affecting the health of striped bass in the Bay, which are present in near-record numbers, although many striped bass examined in Maryland waters appear to be in poor condition.

Whether the peer-review panel’s recommendations will change management remains to be seen.

“There’s nothing binding in any of the peer reviews,” said Joe Desfosse, ASMFC fishery management plan coordinator. “It’s advice. Whether the [Menhaden Management] Board chooses to listen to that advice is up to them. I’m sure there will be pressure from outside the board to listen to the advice.”

Desfosse said an effort to amend the existing menhaden management plan is likely to begin soon, although it is too early to say what changes might be suggested. Any proposed changes would go out for public comment. The full process of amending the plan is not likely to be completed until the end of 2000 or early 2001.

“You’re looking at two years, probably, before anything would change,” said Jim Price, president of the Chesapeake Bay Acid Rain Foundation, who has been raising concern about the menhaden stock and examining the health of striped bass for more than a year. “They don’t want to face reality. It’s so much easier to put it off.”

Still, Price added, “The system is working. The process is in place. We just have to be patient.”

The menhaden management plan has often been hailed as one of the best for any coastal species. It incorporates six “triggers,” which monitor various changes in the size and age composition of the stock. The triggers serve as warning signs when they are reached.

But the triggers, according to the peer review report, fire blanks. No specific management action results when the triggers are reached; last year, two triggers were hit but no management action was taken.

The report said most of the triggers were tied to data stemming from the menhaden catch. Such data, the scientists said, do not always serve as a true indicator of the stock’s health. The scientists recommended throwing out almost all the existing triggers and replacing them with ones more closely tied to the stock’s health.

When hit, the peer review report said the new triggers should set off management actions. The report also said the new triggers should take into account the ecological role of menhaden, both as a forage food for other fish, and as a consumer of phytoplankton. In the Chesapeake, menhaden are one of the most important species for filtering algae from the water.

Historically, no limit has been placed on the menhaden catch. The peer review panel recommended that an annual quota be established for the harvest, with limits being set both by season and by fishing area.

Right now, 80 percent of the total menhaden catch is in the Bay and along Mid-Atlantic states, mostly in Virginia and North Carolina. As a result, the peer review panel said those areas could become depleted on a seasonal basis.

The panel also recommended making a number of changes and incorporating new data — some of which is readily available — into the annual assessment made of the menhaden stock, including the use of more “fishery independent” in addition to catch statistics.

In addition, the peer review panel said ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee, which make recommendations about menhaden management, should be abolished. The committee membership is split between scientists and representatives of the two companies that process menhaden into oil and other products. The peer review panel said the committee should be divided into separate technical and advisory committees, as is the case for other species managed by ASMFC.

Steve Jones, general manager of Reedville, VA-based Omega Protein, the largest menhaden processor, said it was appropriate that the companies share seats on the committee with the scientists because they turn over detailed information about catches to the scientists. “We feel we need to be a part of that process because we have so much information,” Jones said.

Unlike other fisheries, where fish are caught by hundreds of commercial or thousands of recreational fishermen, about 90 percent of all the menhaden are caught for Omega and a smaller company based in North Carolina. The rest is caught by smaller operations for use as bait in other fisheries. The records of the two companies provide the most complete picture of what is being caught for any fishery.

Doug Vaughan, a National Marine Fisheries Service scientist who prepares the annual assessment of the menhaden stock, said that while some new information can readily be incorporated in the assessment, replacing the catch figures with reliable fishery independent data could take years. “Some of the recommendations would take multimillion dollar, multiyear projects, and it would be 10 years or so until we got any benefits from them,” he said.

Nonetheless, Jones said a review of the menhaden situation was warranted, although he cautioned about making a rush to judgment. “I think there is obviously going to be some more study before they go out and put quotas on everything,” he said. “The resource looked real strong to us last year.”

Jones agreed that reproduction had been poor for several years, but noted that the spawning potential of the stock — its ability to produce eggs — was near record highs. Environmental conditions, such as weather and temperature, are thought to be the most important factors in determining whether eggs survive to become young fish that join migrating menhaden populations.

“One of my philosophies is that there is an overpopulation of striped bass out there that is eating up a heck of a lot of these small fish,” he said. He noted that other fish eaten by striped bass, such as bay anchovy, have also had reduced abundances in recent years.

Vaughan agreed that the link between menhaden and striped bass needs to be more closely examined. Menhaden abundances were also low in the 1960s, when striped bass populations were high, he said, while menhaden populations grew in the 1970s and 1980s as striped bass declined.

“Now, with striped bass populations extremely high, we’re again having trouble with menhaden,” Vaughan said. “I’m not saying that’s the only cause, but that’s part of the equation.”

Jones said last year’s catch indicated that reproduction was on the rebound. In the fall, he said, 15 percent of the catch — instead of the normal 5 percent — were fish less than a year old.

“With the small fish we saw last fall, in Virginia, North Carolina and especially up north, I think we’re going to see a lot of smaller fish coming into the fishery this coming summer,” Jones said, “so I feel good about the resource.”

Whether that is borne out in Vaughn’s annual assessment will be known later this spring, when the latest stock analysis is presented to the ASMFC. At that point, the commission will have to determine whether to take any management action, or wait until the amendment process is complete.

“The development of an amendment doesn’t preclude action in the interim,” said Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It certainly does provide a ready excuse for putting off action if people want to use it that way.

“But,” he added, “I don’t think the board is going to ignore any really strong warnings signs from the fishery.”