New York Times by Abby Goodnough
BOSTON — A fishing oversight group voted Wednesday to sharply reduce the allowable East Coast catch of menhaden, an oily forage fish that does not show up on dinner plates but is vital, scientists say, to the ocean ecosystem.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which includes representatives from 15 Eastern states and the federal government, voted to reduce the menhaden harvest by as much as 37 percent compared with 2010 levels after a review found the species had been overfished and needed to rebuild.
Millions of pounds of menhaden are caught along the Atlantic Seaboard each year, most by Omega Protein, a company that grinds it and reduces it to fish meal and oil that goes into fertilizer, feed for livestock and farmed fish, pet food and even dietary supplements. But menhaden — which is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and is also known as bunker or pogy, depending where you live — is also an ecological building block, serving as a crucial food for larger fish like tuna, striped bass and bluefish, as well as birds and marine mammals.
“There’s really not much in the ocean that is as healthy to eat, pound for pound, as menhaden,” said Peter Baker, director of Northeast fisheries at the Pew Environment Group, which supported the catch reduction. “If these other species don’t have menhaden in their diet it becomes less nutritious and they’re more susceptible to disease.”
Mr. Baker said the menhaden fishery was the largest on the East Coast by weight and that the population had fallen to less than 10 percent of historic levels.
The bait industry also harvests the fish for use in lobster and crab traps, Mr. Baker said, though it is estimated to catch 20 percent of the harvest, compared with about 80 percent for Omega Protein.
“We’ve been pushing this fish into the red zone over and over again,” he said, “and we’re now at the critical point where it’s going to stop being able to reproduce itself and perhaps go into freefall and collapse if action isn’t taken immediately.”
In two separate votes, the commission members called for a minimum catch reduction of 23 percent and a target reduction of 37 percent until menhaden stocks rebound. It has yet to figure out exactly how to reduce the catch.
The only states whose representatives on the commission voted against the target 37 percent catch reduction were Virginia, where Omega Protein’s fleet is based, and New Jersey.
Jack Travelstead, a representative from Virginia, questioned whether the measure would really increase menhaden stocks, suggesting that environmental factors played more of a role.
“There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty,” he said.
Ben Landry, a spokesman for Omega Protein, said the company was disappointed and felt the commission was responding to pressure from environmentalists and recreational fishermen.
“One thing is certain,” Mr. Landry said. “The industry is going to have to face some significant harvest cuts that will lead to a lot of hard employment questions, and a lot of tough questions as to how they’re going conduct their operation.”
Several recreational fishermen at the meeting said they were deeply encouraged by the vote, which came after the commission received more than 90,000 public comments, mostly in favor of steep catch reductions.
“I think it’s great that so many states recognize how vital this fish is,” said Paul Eidman, a fishing guide based in Sandy Hook, N.J. “It’s just a start, but it’s an important one.”
Mr. Eidman, who founded an advocacy group called Menhaden Defenders, said that smaller schools of menhaden off the New Jersey coast had meant a drop in business for him in recent years.
“The general feeling in New Jersey is if we don’t have bunker the fishing’s terrible,” he said. “And in this economy, people just aren’t going to take a day off from work to fish unless they know the fishing’s going to be really good.”
But H. Bruce Franklin, who wrote “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America,” said a better step would have been to get rid of the so-called reduction fishing industry — harvesting menhaden for the manufacture of meal and oil — altogether.
“There’s no rational reason for this industry to exist,” he said. “If the maximum measures were taken right now, it might still be a little bit too late. But we’re hoping it’s not.”