As a result of heavy commercial fishing pressure, menhaden are currently experiencing a large population decline. Menhaden are at their lowest abundance in recorded history, which may ultimately result in the collapse of some of the East Coast's most prized recreational fisheries, including striped bass.
Menhaden are vital to the coastal marine food chain and serve as a primary food source for many economically and recreationally important sportfish. Therefore, it is critically important that preventative action be taken to increase Atlantic menhaden stocks. We support the use of rigorous science to determine the time line and extent to which harvest should be reduced in order to stabilize menhaden populations.
Menhaden play a key role in the coastal marine food chain. They filter algae from the water and serve as a primary food source for many sportfish. Menhaden is the second most commercially harvested species in the United States. It is factory processed for its oil and turned into animal feed and other commercial products. Much of the debate over menhaden focuses on its commercial harvest in the Chesapeake Bay, which is where half the entire coastal harvest of menhaden occurs. Over the past three decades, menhaden abundance has declined continuously from an estimated 186 billion fish to 18 billion.
The declining status of menhaden has taken on more significance with the increasing prevalence of Mycobacteriosis infections among striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay. There is growing evidence that a lack of suitable forage, notably menhaden, has stressed these important sportfish and made them particularly vulnerable to this fatal disease. The first reports of Mycobacterium-infected striped bass in the Chesapeake date back to 1984 and today over 70 percent of bass display lesions related to the disease.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has regulatory oversight of the menhaden harvest. Despite the data that clearly shows a declining population, the current benchmarks used by the Commission show that the stock is not overfished.
In August 2011, the ASMFC voted overwhelmingly to move forward with a draft Menhaden Fishery Management Plan Addendum that will include a range of management options to more conservatively manage commercial harvest of menhaden.
The key menhaden stock measurement involves a calculation of “maximum spawning potential” (MSP), which is a measure of the spawning potential of the existing stock compared to that of an unfished stock. The spawning potential of the current coastal population is only 8 percent MSP. The American Sportfishing Association (ASA) recommended that the ASMFC adopt a conservation target of 40 percent of the menhaden MSP, which is in line with national standards for other forage species. Click here to read ASA’s comments.
After receiving tens of thousands of comments, during its November 2011 meeting, the ASMFC voted by a wide margin to approve a new fishing target level for menhaden of 30 percent MSP in an effort to increase its abundance and its availability as a forage species. While the target selected by the Commission was slightly lower than the level that the sportfishing community recommended, this still represents a major step in managing menhaden for their role in the food chain, as opposed to simply as a reduction fishery.
This is a significant victory for the Atlantic sportfishing community, but it is only the first step in a long journey to rebuild the menhaden population. ASA remains engaged in this issue and efforts to rebuild menhaden populations.
The current benchmarks used by the Commission show that the stock is undergoing overfishing.
In December 2012, the ASMFC approved the Interstate Fishery Management Plan’s Amendment 2 for Atlantic Menhaden, which reduced menhaden harvest in both the reduction and bait fisheries by 20 percent beginning in 2013. While ASA requested a minimum of 25 percent reduction, the action by the ASMFC is a significant positive step towards restoring menhaden abundance. The 20 percent reduction in harvest is an interim measure that will be in place until the results of the next benchmark stock assessment are known, with a response likely in early 2015.