Something very unusual happened at the November 2011 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The audience broke into applause for what the commisioners did.
They stood up for a fish that H. Bruce Franklin at Rutgers University called “The Most Important Fish in the Sea”—the Atlantic menhaden.
The menhaden is not a lovable, or famous fish. As Franklin describes it:
Not one of these fish is destined for a supermarket, a canning factory, or restaurant. Menhaden are oily, foul smelling, and packed with tiny bones. No one eats them—not directly, anyhow. Hardly anyone has even heard of them except for those who fish or study our eastern and southern waters.
Yet menhaden are the principal fish caught along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, exceeding the tonnage of all other species combined.
Menhaden once spanned the entire Eastern Seaboard. Travelling in thick schools miles long, these small bony, oily, fish are central to the diet of whales, seabirds, and the larger fish that fed a growing nation. They also make great fertilizer as Native Americans taught hungry European settlers who were farming in depleted soil.
For fishermen, menhaden, or “bunker,” are a vital bait fish, essential to a multi-million dollar industry along the Eastern Seaboard. But menhaden are not caught for human consumption. They are harvested by the millions to be used as bait for other fish, fertilizer, animal feed, and omega-3 oil for people.
Menhaden, being harvested. (savemenhaden.org)
Menhaden populations have fallen by 90 percent in the last 25 years. An essential link of the ocean’s food web has gone missing. This has impacted commercially valuable fisheries like tuna and cod and the recreational fishing sector that pumps millions into coastal economies each year from Virginia to Maine.
The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force in their report Little Fish, Big Impact found that forage fish (like the menhaden) are worth twice as much when left in the water to fulfill their essential role in the ocean ecosystem.
At the November 2001 meeting, the ASMFC heard arguments presented by Earthjustice attorneys and our allies. More than 90,000 Americans wrote, asking for stronger protections for the menhaden. When the commission finally committed to creating a management goal that would put menhaden on the path to recovery, cheers broke out.
But a sustainable menhaden population is far from certain.
At the December ASMFC meeting, the commission will vote on measures to turn these historic promises into action when they consider setting a coast-wide, science-based annual catch limit.
But they need to hear from you.
Now is the time to speak up. You can take action to save the menhaden.