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Managing the Little Fish in Big Demand

The menhaden may not look like much, but it's important enough for industry and ocean predators to make managing it complicated. (Capt. John McMurray)
The menhaden may not look like much, but it's important enough for industry and ocean predators to make managing it complicated. (Capt. John McMurray)
November 10, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. – A boost to catch limits for an important little fish is worrying sport fishing enthusiasts and conservationists.

They say the fish’s role in the ocean is still not clear.

A Virginia company processes hundreds of thousands of tons of menhaden for fish meal and oil.

But John McMurray, president of One More Cast charters of Long Island, N.Y., says the fish also supports bigger predator fish such as striped bass and bluefish that his clients pay to catch.

McMurray points out menhaden limits have been a huge boost to the bigger fish, and worries that loosening those limits will mean fewer predators such as the whale he just saw.

"One came up 20 feet away from the boat, opened his mouth,” he relates. “Menhaden were flying out the side of it.

“And it's very shortsighted that we're allowing these increases before we really even know what sort of effect they're going to have on the predators."

Conservationists say a 20 percent cut in the allowable menhaden catch, effective for 2013 and 2014, helped trigger a rapid rebound in the fish's population and territory, although environmentalists say the fish hasn't recovered fully yet.

The catch limit was raised by 10 percent, effective starting last year. Late last month it was raised again by nearly 6.5 percent, effective for next year.

The small, oily fish is the biggest East Coast catch by volume, because it's processed for oil and meal. But Joseph Gordon, manager for Mid-Atlantic Ocean Conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts, says we don't know enough about the menhaden's role as a forage fish.

Fishery regulators have mandated a study of menhaden's role in the oceans ecosystems.

Gordon says he's very glad to see that starting, but it won't be finished for another year. In the meantime he says increasing the limit as was done last month is premature.

"This increase means that there'll be millions less fish in the ocean,” he stresses. “We don't know the impact on predators, and many of those predators are in decline."

The multi-state Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission manages menhaden for the East Coast.

Robert Ballou, chair of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Menhaden Management Board, says his organization has been careful to base what he calls modest increases in the catch on assessments of fish stocks. He defends what he describes as the group’s conservative management strategy.

"Both of those increases have reflected the new information that's come out indicating that the stock is generally healthy condition," he states.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA