Menhaden quota cut 10 percent as fisheries managers weigh ecosystem impacts

Bunker or menhaden fish, seen while whale watching off Long Beach, N.Y. (Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography via Getty Images)

With a new fisheries regime in place that takes a broader ecosystem approach to management, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on Tuesday cut the menhaden quota for the next two years by 10 percent. 

The decision reduces the allowable catch of menhaden from 216,000 metric tons to 194,400 metric tons in 2021 and 2022. 

In a move hailed by many environmentalists and sportfishers, the adoption by the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Board this fall of an “ecological reference point” for menhaden aims to take account of the role the small, oily fish plays in marine ecosystems. More traditional fisheries management relies solely on species-specific measures like death rates, reproductive rates and abundance. 

Menhaden have proven a particular flashpoint in Atlantic fisheries management because of their position on the food chain. While they are harvested commercially for reduction into fish meal and fish oil — primarily by the Reedville, Va.-based Omega Protein — they are also an important food source for species like striped bass. 

Scientific opinions have differed on how stable the Atlantic menhaden population is, however, with big industry players like Omega contending the fishery is healthy and sustainable and the ASMFC limiting catch quotas out of concern stocks are being depleted.

One such reduction — the ASMFC’s 2017 decrease of the Chesapeake Bay quota from 87,000 metric tons to 51,000 tons — ultimately led to Omega exceeding the cap and the federal government ordering that the fishery be shut down if the company didn’t comply with federal limits. A closure was ultimately averted.

Omega said Tuesday in a statement that while the 10 percent cut directed by the ASMFC was “not preferred,” it “is not an unreasonable step toward moving to ecological management of this species.” 

Still, the company said  “the healthy status of the Atlantic menhaden population, coupled with the depleted status of its primary predators, warranted maintaining the current Total Allowable Catch and not adopting additional precautionary harvest reductions.” 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has consistently advocated for reducing the catch limits and including ecological reference points, celebrated the decision.

“This continues ASMFC’s efforts to manage menhaden not only for their economic value, but their more important value as food for so many other species,” said CBF ecosystem scientist Chris Moore in a statement. “This lower harvest limit aims to leave enough menhaden in the water to help them fulfill their key role in the food chain both along the Atlantic Coast and in Chesapeake Bay.”