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Saving the Menhaden

Little fish (forage fish) often play a huge role in the ocean ecosystem. Without healthy populations of small fish, the ocean's food web can collapse.

Menhaden. (NOAA)

Monterey's Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck, thrived as a sardine fishery in the early 20th century. By the mid-1940s the sardine biomass collapsed due to overfishing. This impacted birds, marine mammals, and larger fish for whom sardines are a central food source. Today, Cannery Row is just a museum and tourist attraction.

On the East Coast, the same fate now faces a small fish known as menhaden.

Often called "the most important fish in the sea," the menhaden (also known as pogy or bunker) are a perfect example of a keystone species.

On one hand, the menhaden serve as the ocean's janitors. These filter-feeders consume nutrient-rich phytoplankton (algae), which keeps the algae in check so that it doesn't hog the sea's oxygen and block the sunlight needed for sea grasses to grow.

Menhaden also convert algae into flesh and become a favorite food of bigger fish. They are known to swim in great schools often miles long, gobbled up by hungry bluefish, striped bass, flounder, halibut, mackerel, swordfish, tuna and even whales.

Today, one company, the Houston-based Omega Protein, has cornered the market for menhaden. Omega's industrial-scale purse-seine fleet (sometimes called "super-seiners") catch billions of menhaden and grind them up for fertilizer, pig and chicken feed, omega-3 fish oil and pellets for fish farming operations. Overfishing has put the menhaden in a death spiral.

Fishing and conservation groups organized to end overfishing and to rebuild this vanishing species. Thirteen public hearings were held in 2011 to discuss the fate of the menhaden, and 92,000 comments were sent in by the public with nearly all seeking to limit the menhaden harvest.

In November 2011, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted to set new fishing limits designed to end overfishing that are based on new population thresholds that will reduce the annual menhaden harvest by 37 percent.

Earthjustice attorneys Roger Fleming and Erica Fuller, representing recreational fishing and ocean conservation groups, played an essential role as legal advocates to the coalition.

The coalition fought off an "old boy" network and army of Omega Protein lawyers that had dominated ASMFC decisionmaking, and made the case that the law required lower fishing levels to be enacted.

But the historic November 2011 vote only concludes Phase 1 of this effort. There is no guarantee that the new limits will be achieved without development and implementation of effective conservation and management measures that will rein in the fishery on the water.

Earthjustice and its partners are already working on a new amendment to the ASMFC menhaden fishery management plan for the 2013 fishing year designed to allow the menhaden fish stock to successfully rebuild. What is needed is a coast-wide annual catch limit, with timely and comprehensive monitoring and reporting. Federal regulators must enact complimentary measures in nearby federal waters where unregulated menhaden fishing is on the rise.

Explore an interactive map describing how work from each of Earthjustice's regional offices contributes to a holistic approach of protecting the broader ocean ecosystem: Oceans' Eleven

Source: Pew Environment Group
Source: Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 2009 Stock Assessment