A tiny fish that feeds a healthy Atlantic ecosystem is now sparking industry discussions

The researchers hoped to find evidence of a healthy new generation of ospreys when they examined 84 nests of fish-eating birds in mid-June in Mobjack Bay, an inlet at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay. They found only three young men.

That was the lowest breeding number in more than 50 years of local populations monitoring the bird of prey, according to scientists at the College of William & Mary. They said it represented the latest evidence of a long-term decline in breeding success due to the depletion of the birds’ favorite food – the Atlantic menhaden.

Hundreds of millions of tiny silverfish play an important role in the ecology of coastal waters along the east coast, preying on larger fish such as striped bass and weak fish; marine mammals including whales and dolphins; and birds such as bald eagles, great blue herons and brown pelicans. Fish is nutrient-dense and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. They consume smaller organisms such as plankton and filter huge amounts of ocean water.

But they are also a mainstay of the commercial fishing industry, where they are caught in large quantities to be processed into bait for crabs and lobsters, and in larger volumes for so-called reduction fisheries, where they are ground up and made into products including fish oil and fish meal.

This year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal regulator, increased the amount of menhaden allowed to be caught to 233,550 metric tons around the Atlantic coast over the next two years, about 20 percent higher than the two years prior. The committee said the new quota will provide additional fishing opportunities while reducing the risk of harming the fish ecosystem.

The agency concluded last August that there was no evidence that menhaden was being “overfished” across its range, when measured by “ecological benchmarks,” a network of fish predators and prey that has guided the committee’s policy since 2020, replacing it. . Individual species management practice.

While raising coast-wide catches for Menhadin, the committee left its quota for fisheries reduction in the Chesapeake Bay unchanged at 51,000 metric tons, or about 244 million fish, based on an average of 0.46 pounds per fish. Across the entire Atlantic coast, the agency has authorized the catch of about 1.2 billion fish.

Critics of the committee say removing such large quantities of fish from the bay degrades the ecosystem in which Menhaden plays a key role, making it difficult for species like osprey and striped bass to survive and thrive.

“The Virginia-based menhaden fishery is overfishing Atlantic menhaden stocks in and around the Chesapeake Bay,” Noah Pressman, a professor of fish biology at Salisbury University in Maryland, wrote in a 2021 letter to Maryland officials. of menhaden from the Gulf contributes to the disappearance of many menhaden-dependent species.”

There are “many factors responsible for declines in other species,” said Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the commission. For example, she said, vulnerable fish have also been affected due to high levels of predation and disease in recent years.

In May, a group of recreational fishermen from Maryland sued the Virginia Marine Resources Authority, a state agency, alleging that it contributed to the decline of menhaden in and around the Chesapeake Bay by “rubber stamping” on recent quotas set by the Atlantic Commission.

The Southern Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization said the Virginia agency’s decision was contributing to declines in populations of menhaden fish and other species that depend on them, and that it harms the recreational fishing industry, which the organization said contributes $1.3 billion annually to Virginia’s economy. .

The maximum harvest fixed by the Commission for Virginia and the Atlantic Coast “does not relieve the Virginia Commission of the duty to analyze – based on state-specific considerations set forth in law – the maximum appropriate harvest in Virginia’s portion of the Gulf, and adequate conservation according to the complaint filed May 10 in the Circuit Court.” of the City of Richmond.

Phil Zalesak, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, said the group is seeking a hearing on the matter in September.

The suit accused the state agency of issuing the regulation outside the period established by state law from October to December, and of failing to make its own analysis of conditions in state waters when approving the agency’s new quota. She asked the court to invalidate the state agency regulation, and demand a new rule that would protect Virginia’s waters, including the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

The state agency declined to comment.

Omega Protein, the Readville, Virginia-based company that harvests menhaden to turn it into fish oil and other products, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but did support the committee’s argument that menhaden is not overfished. Ben Landry, a company spokesman, said the authority’s current limit on taking menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay was among the lowest in the Gulf’s 150-year fisheries history, and that there is no scientific basis for claims that the fish is locally depleted.

Mr. Landry pointed to the striped bass as an example of a fish that is “seriously depleted” in Atlantic waters for reasons other than its food source, and attributed the problem to “excessive” recreational fishing that should be curbed by emergency regulations.

“The highly precautionary Chesapeake Bay cover of minhadin is clearly not an obstacle to the return of the striped bass population to higher levels,” he said.

in statement on its websiteThe company said the increase in the total allowable catch of Manhaden was “fully in line” with the environmental benchmarks that underlie the authority’s new management of fish.

Along the coast since 2015, the population of striped bass has been on the rise. But after recreational catches of striped bass nearly doubled last year compared to 2021, the Atlantic Commission took steps in May to rebuild the population by limiting the maximum size of fish caught by recreational anglers to 31 inches.

Paul Edman, founder of Menhaden Defenders, a nonprofit organization that advocates for rebuilding species stocks along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, accused Omega of using industrial techniques, including large ships and surveillance aircraft, to catch Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay in numbers that are not sustainable, which contribute to the decline of other species.

“It’s about the impact of these huge 195-foot ships,” Mr. Edman said in an interview. “They’re taking in millions and millions of fish at a time, and they’re basically stripping parts of the bay. Game fish and birds and all these other creatures are suffering from it. It’s not that fish aren’t there; it’s that they are being wiped out so quickly that nature is repopulating them.”

Mr. Edman, who also operates charter fishing boats out of Monmouth County, N.J., said the Chesapeake Bay has been an important source of game fish like striped bass all over the Atlantic coast. He urged Omega to fish out of the bay so that its stocks of minnows and other fish could recover from what he and other advocates say are years of overfishing.

He said, “Our dispute is: stay in the ocean, leave the estuary alone, and be a good steward.” “Omega always talks about being a member of the community, always giving back. If they cared that much, they would move their operations out to sea, and leave the estuary alone so it could do its thing.”

Outside the Chesapeake Bay, menhaden populations have increased since the Atlantic Commission determined in 2012 that the fish are being harvested at a rate that exceeds their ability to reproduce if not corrected. In response, the agency temporarily reduced the total catch allowed by 20 percent coast-wide, and fish populations recovered within two years.

Evidence of their recent abundance can be found off the coasts of New York and New Jersey, where more predators have returned, including humpback whales, tuna, sharks and bald eagles, Mr. Edman said.

The most recent ratio in Mobejac Bay is just 0.03, said Michael Academia, an osprey researcher in the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Johnson, well below the rate of 1.15 required for residents to sustain themselves. Marie in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The record low level of osprey chicks in the region follows successive declines in the reproduction rate of 1.39 per pair in 1984, 0.91 in 1990 and 0.75 by 2006, all of which reflect local depletion of algae stocks, Accademia said.

He said the Atlantic Commission’s assessment that menhaden stocks were not overfished was inaccurate for the Chesapeake Bay as the numbers were locally depleted.

Because there is no exact data on the number of menhaden in the bay, the William & Mary team used an additional feeding program to ensure that fish-fed birds reared more young than those that did not receive the supplemental fish. Although osprey can feed on other types of fish, they prefer menhaden because the species rehearses at the surface, and thus is easier to access.

To rebuild the local population of osprey and other creatures that depend on Menhaden, the commercial fishing industry, whether for bait or reduction fishing, must move from Mobjack Bay — an important measure of the osprey population — and from the Chesapeake Bay as a whole, Mr. Academia said. “The menhaden population in Mobejac Bay is not currently sufficient to maintain the osprey population,” he said.

Commission spokeswoman Ms Berger said a lack of data on Menhaden stocks in certain parts of the Atlantic coast limited the agency’s ability to report on local data. But she said she hopes to develop more site-specific data in the future.

“Developing models and data that can process fine spatial scales is a species research priority,” Ms. Berger wrote in an email. “The current stock assessment (which ends in 2025) will still assess menhaden as a coast-level stock, but will begin to explore methods and data that can be used in the next assessment to obtain regional components.”