Delaware allocated higher percentage of catch

The Atlantic menhaden is a crucial part of the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem, and many were dismayed by the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission’s recent decision not to measure it as such.

“It’s not exactly what we hoped for,” said Kate Wilke, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Marine Program.

The Atlantic menhaden is a blue-green fish that grows to between 14 and 18 inches in length and is characterized by a dark, round spot on its shoulder, a projected lower jaw and a deeply forked tail fin, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

“It’s a small forage fish that forms big schools and is food for everything in the ocean - all kinds of sport fish, whales, marine mammals, birds,” Wilke said. “It feeds on plankton, so it’s low on the food chain, and converts that energy into their body weight. They are a critical link in the food web.”

In other words, when menhaden are overfished, the species that feed upon them are affected. The abundance of menhaden directly affects the abundance of other species of fish.

Ecological reference points

The ASMFC represents 15 states bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Together, they coordinate the conservation and management of 27 fish species. Their mission is, in part, to improve, promote and protect the fishing industry.

In 2015, ASMFC began work on a study to support an amendment to the menhaden management plan, which would potentially adjust total allowable catch – TAC – state allocation methods and consider developing ecological reference points – ERPs – to use when determining things like the TAC. ERPs would help the management plan address menhaden’s role in the ecosystem, rather than just in the fishery.

“In the past we defined a healthy menhaden stock in a traditional sense, where we tried to estimate how many are in the water and leave enough to reproduce so that we have plenty to harvest in the future,” Wilke said. “But because menhaden play such an important role in the ecosystem, we and many other folks – conservationists, sports fishermen – think we should manage them differently, basing our calculations … on ERPs.”

The submission of public comments period on the amendment began in August, and the ASMFC made a decision in early November.

“The commission decided to hold off and maintain a single … reference point until their technical folks can come up with a menhaden-specific way of calculating [ERPs],” Wilke said.

Essentially, ASMFC declined to adopt ERPs into the menhaden management plan in order to spend more time studying them. A Biological and Ecological Reference Point group has been formed to conduct studies.

“There are science-based techniques they could have used,” Wilke said, “But BERP is going to do menhaden-specific studies. They are cautiously optimistic that those models will be ready for peer review in 2019.”

Conservationists like Wilke were disappointed with the decision to wait on applying ERPs.

“We were really hoping we’d come out of the amendment process with ERPs on the books for menhaden management, but that’s not what happened,” Wilke said. “We have a lot of work to do in the next few years to make sure BERP continues their work and that that work actually gets used.”

State allocations

The vast majority of menhaden are harvested by the reduction fishery, which grinds them up to be used for products like fish oil, and Virginia has long been allocated the bulk of the TAC because it is home to the reduction fishery. However, this year, Virginia lost a few percentage points due to the amendment’s attempt to spread the wealth to the bait fishery.

“The bait fishery is a smaller scale harvest where the fish are used as bait in crab and lobster pots,” Wilke said. “It’s very important to Delaware.”

The amendment set the 2018 and 2019 menhaden TAC at 216,000 metric tons, an 8 percent increase from 2017. Virginia’s allocated TAC for 2018 and 2019 was set at 78.66 percent, down about 8 percent from previous years.

 The state with the second-highest allocation in the amendment, historically, was New Jersey, at 10 percent. All other coastal were allocated less than 2 percent.

Delaware’s allocated TAC percentage was set at 0.51 percent, a half-percent increase.

“We were hoping to see changes that would help states that were struggling to maintain their bait fisheries, and for the most part I think they did that,” Wilke said.

Chesapeake Bay

According to Wilke, one part of the amendment gave conservationists reason to rejoice.

“There was already a limit on the amount of [menhaden] that could be taken out of the Chesapeake,” she said, “But they increased that limit by almost 50 percent, and we think that was a really important step.”

The Chesapeake Bay is a major nursery area.

“A large portion of the populations grows and feeds in the Chesapeake when they’re young, and then as they get bigger they migrate up the coast,” Wilke said. “[This amendment] will leave millions of fish in the Chesapeake that can grow up and fatten up and swim up the coast.”

The Chesapeake Bay cap was first instituted in 2006 and set at 81,276 metric tons. The amendment lowered the cap to 51,000 metric tons.

You can find out more about Atlantic menhaden and the ASMFC’s menhaden management plan at