Vol 37 | Num 4 | May 23, 2012
Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, are not a sportfish, but they are a critical part of the food chain that supports our most popular sportfish. Atlantic menhaden are a member of the herring family, which includes many recreationally and commercially important species, such as American shad, alewife and blueback herring (collectively known as river herring), and Atlantic herring. Most anglers know the Atlantic menhaden, usually called bunker, as the top bait for striped bass and other sportfish. Anglers also know that finding the big Atlantic menhaden schools out in the bay or ocean is a great way to locate big sportfish. But anglers may not realize just how important the Atlantic menhaden is to the marine ecosystem and how depleted the Atlantic menhaden population has become compared to a few decades ago. The decline in the Atlantic menhaden population has led to an effort to reduce landings and rebuild the population.
Atlantic menhaden are critically important to the marine ecosystem because they feed at the bottom of the food chain, mainly on phytoplankton (mostly single cell plant-like organisms), but grow large enough to be a major prey item of predators at the top of the food chain ranging from striped bass to bluefin tuna to whales. Atlantic menhaden feed by filtering phytoplankton from the water and their filter feeding helps reduce plankton blooms in nutrient-enriched systems like the Indian River Bay. They are one of the few direct food chain links between our coastal marshes, tidal tributaries and coastal bays, where Atlantic menhaden often feed, along with the open ocean, where they school and are eaten by top predators. Atlantic menhaden feed on a food supply that is usually in high abundance and this food supply has often supported an amazing abundance of Atlantic menhaden.
Atlantic menhaden have supported important fisheries for centuries. They were used for fertilizer, lamp oil and occasionally food from precolonial times into the 19th century. The reduction fishery for menhaden began in the 1800’s and menhaden became the first “industrial” fish as the menhaden were processed (reduced) to produce fishmeal and fish oil. Fishmeal is an important component of animal feeds and fish oil has many uses, but is best known for its use as the omega-3 fish oil in the supplements so widely consumed today.
The reduction fishery grew to a huge size in the mid-20th century with reduction plants common along the Atlantic Coast. Lewes, Delaware was home to one of the largest reduction plants in the United States and had the greatest tonnage of fish landings of any port in the USA in 1953 due to the 168,000 metric tons of Atlantic menhaden landed there that year.
Although the Atlantic menhaden reduction fishery contracted in the 1960’s and has since been based entirely in Virginia, it accounts for most U.S. menhaden landings. Average annual landings in this fishery have been around 150,000 metric tons over the past ten years.
Atlantic menhaden also support a large bait fishery. They are not only a very important bait for sportfish, but they are the main bait used in the blue crab fisheries of the Mid-Atlantic and have been increasing in use as bait in the lobster fishery in New England. The bait fishery has averaged landings of around 40,000 metric tons a year for the past ten years.
Atlantic menhaden abundance seemed limitless in the past and there seemed to be enough Atlantic menhaden in the ocean to support both the fisheries and all the predators that depended on the species as their main food source. However, there have been disturbing signs in recent years suggesting that the menhaden abundance has been in a steep decline from its peak levels of the early 1980’s. The most recent stock assessment of Atlantic menhaden, conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in 2010, found that while the stock was not overfished, overfishing was occurring and this could lead to a further decline in the population over time. The ASMFC Atlantic Menhaden Management Board voted to take action to reduce fishing pressure in 2011. The Board wants to rebuild the Atlantic menhaden stock to a level equivalent to 15% of the Maximum Spawning Potential (MSP). This means that fishing mortality will have to be reduced until the Atlantic menhaden population size reaches a level that is considered to have 15% of the egg production of an unfished Atlantic menhaden stock.
The reductions in Atlantic menhaden landings needed to reach 15% MSP could be steep and take a number of years to complete the rebuilding. The Atlantic menhaden Interstate Fisheries Management Plan (ISFMP) Addendum V is currently out for public comment. Hearings will be held in each state requesting public input on the number of years that should be allowed for rebuilding and the methods that should be used to reduce the total catch. The proposed methods for reducing catch include gear restrictions, seasonal closures and regional quotas. There will also be discussion of whether to cut both the reduction and bait fisheries by equal percentages. The hearing schedule has not yet been released.
So, after all that background, you may wonder how this reduction in the commercial Atlantic menhaden landings will affect anglers? If the rebuilding schedule is short, there will need to be substantial cutbacks in the landings of both the reduction and bait commercial fisheries and thus there will be less Atlantic menhaden available for bait. These cutbacks will likely lead to an increase in price for bait and problems with availability. However, the cutbacks to big Atlantic menhaden bait fisheries in Virginia and New Jersey could be partially offset by increases in the Atlantic menhaden bait landings in states such as Delaware. Delaware’s current menhaden landings are such a small part of total coastwide landings that they could be increased substantially without running afoul of the ISFMP. Hopefully, the supply problems will be short-lived and the Atlantic menhaden stock will soon be rebuilt to a level where it supports the food chain and our fisheries.