Today we’re celebrating steps toward better protections for an even smaller fish—the Atlantic menhaden. The Virginia state legislature voted last week to transfer management of this fish in state waters from the state house to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The legislation is waiting for Governor Northam’s signature before it passes into law to ensure that Virginia’s fish are governed by science, not politics.

Also, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission—a regional governing body that manages fish along the entire Atlantic Coast—voted last month to postpone the adoption of a new system of managing that same fish species. The Commission is gearing up for a future vote to use “ecological reference points,” where the outsized role that menhaden play for some predators is incorporated into management when deciding how many fish can be caught.

All along the Atlantic Coast, including the Chesapeake Bay, coastal birds like Ospreys and Brown Pelicans face an increasing number of challenges like climate change and overfishing that threaten their populations. Menhaden, one of the many small, schooling fish known as forage fish, are one of their primary food sources. In fact, forage fish fuel the entire ocean, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other large fish. When their populations are abundant, seabirds, marine mammals, and fishermen all benefit. But these little bait fish are susceptible to overfishing by huge, multinational industrial fishing corporations like Omega Protein.

Recently, the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to close the Virginia menhaden fishery this summer, as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission found the state to be “out of compliance” with fisheries laws. The reason? Omega Protein, the only major industrial player in the area, was taking more menhaden from Chesapeake Bay than was allowed.

That’s why transferring the authority of menhaden oversight to Virginia’s Marine Resources Commission is necessary to prevent the shutdown of the fishery. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has already proven that they can manage other fisheries sustainably. Blue crabs, striped bass, redfish, and speckled trout are among the many other species doing well thanks to the state commission’s careful management, based on transparency and the best available science.

Thanks to Audubon’s network of bird lovers along the Atlantic Flyway, we sent more than 6,000 messages to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in support of their new ecosystem-based management for menhaden and nearly 50 messages to the General Assembly in Virginia. We hope Audubon’s advocacy will influence the Commission’s future vote because from Maine to Florida, our members understand that protecting our forage fish will have a ripple effect on our coastal communities, allowing seabirds—and all ocean species—to not just survive, but to thrive.


Update: On March 9, 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed this legislation to officially transfer management of Atlantic menhaden over from the state legislature to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. We thank the Governor and the Virgina General Assembly for their leadership on this important issue for seabirds.

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