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Groups Applaud Major Shift in Menhaden Management

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A humpback whale feeds in a school of menhaden off the coast of eastern Long Island. (Sutton Lynch/The Nature Conservancy)
A humpback whale feeds in a school of menhaden off the coast of eastern Long Island. (Sutton Lynch/The Nature Conservancy)
September 4, 2020

NEW YORK -- Environmental groups are hailing what they call a historic change in the management of menhaden fisheries on the Atlantic Coast, saying it holds promise to rebuild threatened species, from striped bass and whales to eagles.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has approved the use of so-called "ecological reference points" to regulate the number of menhaden in the waters.

It's a major shift in management, said Carl LoBue, senior marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

Instead of calculating the abundance and death rate of a single species, he said the new method considers the role menhaden play in the broader marine ecosystem -- as a major foraging food for other species.

"This is really kind of a groundbreaking decision," said LoBue. "The new models also account for the value of fish that are left in the water in terms of their ability to feed striped bass, and to feed other wildlife, like whales and birds."

He said this more holistic approach sets an example for how to manage other U.S. fisheries.

The move won't have a large impact right away, but should be an important factor when the Commission sets menhaden catch limits for the next two years, in October.

The Atlantic menhaden fishery was mostly unregulated until 2012, when harvest limits were set in response to a decline in their numbers.

LoBue said the menhaden revival in the Atlantic over the past 10 years coincides with more humpback whales feeding off the coasts of New York Harbor.

"For there to be whale-watching businesses that operate five or more days a week out of New York City, and new ones popping up in Montauk and in Freeport, it's been pretty incredible," he added.

Menhaden are known as "the most important fish in the sea." Packed with Omega-3s, they're harvested for fish-oil supplements and are a primary food source for whales, dolphins and a long list of predatory fish.

Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy in New York - Long Island contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Diane Bernard, Public News Service - NY