Once again, a little fish that has loomed large in Virginia politics is causing big waves.

This time, though, the Atlantic menhaden is at the forefront of a change in how officials up and down the coast are looking at and managing fisheries. 

The adoption Wednesday of an “ecological reference point” for menhaden by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Board represents what board Chairman Spud Woodward has called “a paradigm shift in management,” one that looks beyond the abundance and death rate of a single species to take into account the role it plays within the broader marine ecosystem.

“Instead of looking at managing menhaden as a single species, we are managing menhaden based on its importance to the surrounding ecosystem,” said Chris Moore, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. 

The introduction of the ecological reference point, while a herald of change in the fisheries world, isn’t likely to have a huge impact right away, said Moore. But it will become an important factor used by the ASMFC when it sets menhaden catch limits for the next two years, a decision it’s slated to make in October. 

The commercial fishing industry, which is dominated by Virginia-based Omega Protein, is anxious to ensure that the catch limit for Atlantic menhaden remains at its present level of 216,000 metric tons — an outcome that could potentially be threatened by the new reference point. (Omega saw its Chesapeake Bay catch limit slashed this year after it violated its Bay quota in 2019, a decision that led to the imposition of a federal moratorium and ultimately the transfer of state control over the fishery from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.)

Still, the industry didn’t oppose the measure. In a letter sent to the ASMFC July 28, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition offered support for the ecological reference points “provided they are considered and utilized flexibly.” The members also in the same letter urged the board to consider maintaining the status quo when it comes to catch limits.

“We believe that it is important to recognize that even from the perspective of considering menhaden in terms of its ecological role, the board’s management program has been successful,” the coalition wrote. 

Looking beyond menhaden

Fisheries traditionally have been managed based on key metrics like mortality, abundance and rate of reproduction. 

But that “single species” approach “generally neglects predator needs,” said Andre Buchheister, a fisheries biologist at Humboldt State University in California who has led research funded by the Lenfest Ocean Program to develop an ecosystem model involving menhaden. 

“The use of an ecosystem model …. that directly informs fisheries management in a tactical and tangible way represents a breakthrough in how we can manage a fish species while accounting for the ecological tradeoffs in the system,” he wrote in an email.

That’s important for menhaden, which serve as a significant food source for other fish. The sportfishing industry and many environmental groups have pointed in particular to the critical role menhaden play in supporting striped bass, which have long been below sustainable population levels identified by fisheries managers. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, for example, pointed to a study co-authored by Buchheister that showed the menhaden fishery contributing to major declines in striped bass. 

“A healthy Atlantic menhaden stock, and quotas that account for the needs of predators, is the science-based management we look for to help support a healthy ecosystem and the sportfishing opportunities it provides,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association, in a statement.

The new approach passed by the board Wednesday brings that predator-prey relationship into decision-making by tying the ERP to maintenance of the striped bass population, which is uniquely sensitive to menhaden fluctuations. 

Still, not everyone agrees about just how strong the relationship is in the real world given current populations and ecosystem dynamics.  

Steven Cadrin, a fisheries scientist with the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, argued Wednesday during a public comment period that his research has shown “little apparent benefit to striped bass and other predators from fishing menhaden at a lower target mortality.”

“Reducing fishing on menhaden doesn’t appear to be needed to rebuild striped bass if other stocks are managed by other parties,” he told the board. 

In a statement after the decision, Omega said it supports the creation of the ERP but argued that many of menhaden’s predators — like striped bass — are themselves being overfished. 

“These species will require harvest reductions to fully restore the population back to targeted levels and cannot rely simply on the availability of menhaden to rebuild its stock,” the company wrote. 

Board members themselves were careful not to oversell the impact the reference point will have on rebuilding other fish populations.

“I don’t want to give anyone the impression that population dynamics and all the variables that go into it are as simple as ‘If you feed them more, there will be more,’” said Jim Estes, a Florida representative on the board. “There are many factors, environmental factors, that come into play besides what they eat.”

Still, while ecological reference points are not a “magic wand,” they do serve as “a way for the menhaden board to support these other predators as they attempt to rebuild through the other board actions,” ASMFC stock assessment scientist Katie Drew pointed out. That may be particularly important given declines in Atlantic herring, another key forage fish, she said. 

“It’s sort of a chicken and egg argument,” said Matthew Cieri, chair of the ERP work group. “You may not have the striped bass to consume the menhaden, but if you don’t have the menhaden, then you won’t have the striped bass to rebuild.”