The Atlantic menhaden is often called “the most important fish in the sea,” because it’s the food of choice for many Bald Eagles, Common Loons, and Brown Pelicans on the East Coast, as well as large fish like striped bass, and even giant humpback whales. But both menhaden and their many hungry predators are in danger to due to industrial fishing. A new regulatory decision by the commission that oversees many fisheries on the Atlantic Coast tried to address this issue but fell short of what was needed for birds.

More pounds of menhaden are landed each year than any other fish in the United States. These little fish are sought after by a multimillion-dollar global industry that turns them into fertilizers, cosmetics, fish oil pills, and more. And since they serve as a daily meal to so many fish and wildlife, this massive harvest has profound impacts on the stability of those marine life. When menhaden is abundant, Ospreys thrive, but when they’re not, the birds have to look elsewhere for a meal.

To recognize the big role these fish play in the ocean, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently committed to basing their future menhaden fisheries decisions on a science framework called “ecological reference points,” which considers the needs of predators like seabirds and larger fish. That was a huge victory for Audubon, as we’ve been working with our chapters and partners toward that decision for several years. It was a decision that—if implemented correctly—will ensure there are plenty of menhaden in the sea for birds and other wildlife for years to come.

When it came time for the Commission to apply this new science-based framework to their actual fisheries policy in October, they cut the fishing rate by 10%, which will leave more menhaden in the water for birds, whales, and large fish than in previous years.

While this reduction in catch is a small step toward progress, it unfortunately fell short of the full 18% reduction that the Commission’s own scientists as well as conservationists and fishing groups recommended. The new catch levels caters to the menhaden fishing industry—reducing the catch limit of menhaden by a smaller margin than what the science calls for.

“This is a missed opportunity to make sure the ecological reference points were implemented effectively,” said Benson Chiles, coordinator of the Menhaden Conservation Project, a consortium of fishing and environmental NGOs working to establish guidelines for a sustainable menhaden fishery.

The new rule will be in effect for the next two years, and while the Commission could always change it in year 2, they would need a supermajority of state commissioners to support that change. Can the menhaden population afford to wait that long for a more ambitious cut to the amount of fish that can be taken out of the water? Chiles says yes, but this could have ripple effects throughout the ecosystem for more sensitive species.

“In that amount of time, the menhaden population will survive, but the concern is for predators that rely on menhaden, including birds and large fish like striped bass,” said Chiles.

In a letter to the Commission, several recreational fishing and boating organizations including the Coastal Conservation Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the American Sportfishing Association urged the Commission to opt for the more conservative approach of keeping more menhaden in the water. The groups reasoned, “The tradeoffs associated with setting a conservative quota for menhaden are worth it when you consider that saltwater recreational fishing along the Atlantic is enjoyed by 6 million anglers annually, contributing $11.3 billion to the economy and supporting 120,236 jobs.”

Anna Weinstein, director of marine conservation at the National Audubon Society, believes the conservation community must continue to hold the Commission accountable. “We live in an age where we’re seeing the consequences of ignoring science, as climate change threatens the people and birds who rely on a healthy ocean,” said Weinstein. “The Commission needs to live up to its commitment to protect seabirds and the menhaden they rely on for food, before it’s too late.”

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