Atlantic coast catch limit leaves 300 million fish in the sea
August 1, 2014
The world’s first coast-wide catch limit to protect the Atlantic menhaden fishery – the largest fishery on the U.S. East Coast – is already well into its second year and the numbers are looking good. A recent assessment of fish landing data for the year 2013 suggests that roughly 300 million more menhaden were spared from overfishing (catching fish faster than they can reproduce[i]) thanks to a unique alliance between all 15 Atlantic coastal states from Maine to Florida established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in December 2012. The agreement limited the total menhaden catch to 377 million pounds – three quarters the amount caught in previous years. According to the ASMFC, last year’s total fish landings came in well under the allowed maximum.
Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) are “forage fish” along with herring, sardines and other small plankton-eaters – some of the most important fish in the sea. The small silvery fish are typically 12-15 inches in length and weigh approximately half a pound. By feeding on phytoplankton and converting it into rich, oily protein, menhaden are a vital food source for bigger predatory fish like tuna, cod, salmon and sharks, marine mammals like dolphins and humpback whales and many types of seabirds throughout ocean food webs.
Clearly, humans are also heavily dependent on these amazing little fish, which have come to make up over a third of our wild marine catch. Historically, commercial fishers have had unrestricted access to the Atlantic menhaden fishery, depleting its numbers by roughly 90%. Menhaden are primarily used in fish oil dietary supplements, fertilizers and animal feed for farmed animals like pigs, chickens and even other fish. As the Safina Center puts it, “If you’re eating farmed animals—you’re eating wild ocean fish.”[ii]
The Atlantic menhaden fishery may not be glamorous but it is lucrative, making this catch limit an especially impressive achievement given concerns about potential profit losses in the industry. A major push by progressive fishermen, conservationists and the general public spurred the new catch limit into law and many researchers are hopeful that the industry will realize that small forage fish like menhaden are far more valuable left in the water than removed. In fact, according to the Daily Press of Newport News, VA, this catch limit didn’t cause related industries to lose profits: “Omega Protein Inc., which operates the only menhaden rendering plant left on the East Coast…announced a record gross profit of $82.8 million at the end of 2013.”[iii]
Menhaden and other forage fish are often caught using an industrial-scale fishing method called purse seining, which allows for entire schools to be captured at once. This approach is controversial because it can result in the bycatch of other untargeted species and is so efficient that it enables overfishing. Maryland and Florida have banned the practice. According to Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown of the Safina Center, Florida, New York and Rhode Island exceeded their share of the menhaden catch limit last year because they underestimated the amount of fish they caught for bait as well as the amount of the total catch share they required for the year. However, the new regulations enabled those states to receive unused catch shares from other states in the program.[iv] This system may sound sneaky, but if enforced correctly it can be beneficial to everyone involved (including the fish). As fishers realize that they benefit as the population of the fish species increases they feel less pressure to capture as many fish as possible, allowing them to fish only in allowed areas in good conditions and reducing their risk of losing gear – “ghost nets” that can entangle and kill countless marine creatures.[v]
Researchers are monitoring Atlantic menhaden fish stocks to see if the population is notably rebounding or if they need to adjust the coast-wide catch limit in the future. Things are getting better for menhaden, but their population remains at a fraction of its historic size and they still need your help. Our friends at the Safina Center encourage those of you on the coast to research and get informed about the current state of forage fish in your area. If you can, avoid buying pet food and other products that contain fishmeal or fish oil.
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Featured image (top): Atlantic Menhaden © Brian Gratwicke