Fisheries regulators cut menhaden catch to protect other species
A small silver fish, menhaden has outsized importance in the sea, serving as sustenance for many larger fish and providing vital oils for healthy human hearts. But the population of menhaden has plummeted to just 8 percent of its historical levels off the East Coast as overfishing has taken its toll.
After years of pressure from environmental groups and recreational fishermen, a panel that regulates fishing from Maine to Florida decided yesterday in Boston to reduce the catch of menhaden by as much as 37 percent of the number caught last year.
Environmental groups called the vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission unprecedented and said it would help protect many other animals that depend on menhaden for food, from striped bass and bluefish to ospreys and loons.
“Scientists have warned that having too few menhaden in the water could result in disastrous impacts on the fish and wildlife that eat them,’’ said Peter Baker, director of northeast fisheries at the Pew Environment Group. “Today’s decision marks a watershed moment.’’
The commercial fishing industry has long lobbied against reducing the catch, asserting that the menhaden population remains healthy and that jobs will be jeopardized.
Among the most vocal opponents of the catch reduction, which will take effect in 2013, was a Texas-based company that harvests nearly all the menhaden caught from Cape Cod to North Carolina. Officials from Omega Protein Inc. said they may have to close a plant in Virginia that employs more than 300 people, who harvest hundreds of millions of pounds of menhaden every year.
“What the commission did is akin to swatting a gnat with a sledgehammer,’’ said Ron Lukens, a senior fisheries biologist for Omega. “It’s absolutely a disappointment. We knew we were going to take a cut, but this is a little too much to swallow.’’
Commission officials said the vote would have a major impact on the future of the fishing industry around New England. Menhaden are often used as bait for lobster and are a vital source of food for cod, tuna, striped bass, and many other fish commonly caught in local waters.
“The concern is that if there isn’t enough menhaden, the striped bass could move out of Massachusetts waters,’’ said Dr. Louis Daniel, chairman of the commission’s menhaden board. “By taking these measures and increasing the amount of menhaden in the water, there will be a huge impact on the ecosystem.’’
Local fishermen said the vote will alleviate concerns about the future of the local fishery.
“This is a historic vote,’’ said Patrick Paquette, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association. “We really view the menhaden as the most important fish in the sea. Our waters are in crisis, and this vote will help. We hope to see a turnaround within the next five years.’’
Much of the menhaden caught are ground up and reduced to fish meal and oil for use in fish oil dietary supplements that people take to boost heart health, as well as in fertilizer, farm animal feed, and pet food.
Officials at the Pew Environment Group said, by weight, more menhaden are caught than any other fish on the East Coast, and that has resulted in substantial changes in what many of their predators eat.
In the 1950s, they said, nearly 80 percent of the diet of striped bass was composed of menhaden; last year, that figure dropped to about 7 percent. In the 1980s, three-quarters of the prey ospreys ate was menhaden; last year the fish composed less than a quarter of their diet.
“The vote taken was exactly what we wanted,’’ said John Crawford, the Pew Environmental Group’s science and policy manager for the northeast fisheries. “This means there will ultimately be more menhaden left in the water, and that’s good for the ecosystem.’’