The population of Atlantic menhaden is at an all-time low: the stock has fallen over 90 percent in the last 25 years.
The loss of menhaden spells disaster for striped bass, tuna, bluefish, weakfish, osprey, whales, and other fish, birds, and marine mammals that feed on menhaden. Each species occupies a crucial niche in the ecosystem, and the removal of a prey or forage species like menhaden disrupts the web and threatens the fish higher in the food chain.
Species that depend on menhaden are suffering as a result. Menhaden historically comprised 77 percent of the striped bass diet. Currently, they provide just 7 percent. Weakfish and osprey populations are also showing signs of malnourishment and increased mortality. Bluefish eat far less menhaden than they did in the early 1990s.
If we want to protect our game fish and marine mammals, we must protect their food!
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which coordinates the management of menhaden in state waters, is considering taking action to reduce the menhaden harvest for the first time in history, which would ease the pressure on striped bass and other predators.
Help menhaden – and striped bass – by attending a public hearing or sending a comment to the ASMFC. The ASMFC must set a coastwide TAC to save the menhaden and the species that depend on them!
The Plight of Menhaden
The menhaden fishery is the largest in the continental United States by volume.
The massive harvest is divided into two parts, a reduction fishery that accounts for 80 percent of the nearly half a billion pounds of menhaden landed each year, and a bait fishery that harvests the remaining 20 percent.
Omega Protein is the only company that operates a reduction fishery in Atlantic waters. It grinds its menhaden catch into fish meal and oil for use in pet foods, livestock and aquaculture feeds, industrial products, protein meal and solubles, and dietary supplements.
Omega Protein removes menhaden at a rate that makes it nearly impossible for the population to sustain itself. The company targets older, larger fish because their yield is far greater. But as menhaden age their fecundity, or capacity to reproduce, increases dramatically. Right now, the annual removal of adult fish is 65 percent or higher, making it unlikely that an adult menhaden will reproduce once, if at all.
The majority of Omega Protein’s sales are international: menhaden are being taken right out of the Atlantic ecosystem, only to be churned up and sold abroad in Asia and Europe.
The remaining 20 percent of the Atlantic menhaden catch can be attributed to the bait fishery, which nets menhaden primarily for the New England lobster industry that spans several states. Over the course of the last decade, the population of Atlantic herring has been depleted in New England, forcing lobstermen to seek another source of bait – and menhaden has fit the bill.
Bait vessels also catch menhaden to sell to bait and tackle shops for recreational fishermen, as well as commercial crabbers. These small vessels are now being accompanied by large carrier vessels (see picture above), which has allowed daily catches to increase to unprecedented levels.
As a result of the over exploitation of menhaden by the reduction fishery, and the increased use of menhaden by the bait industry, fishermen along the Atlantic coast are witnessing localized depletion of menhaden and the game fish that depend on them.
The ASMFC has proposed new regulations for the maximum spawning potential. Click here to learn more.