You have probably never seen it on a menu, but this little fish has been dubbed “the most important fish in the sea,” and lately has been causing quite a stir. Over 90,000 letters and public comments regarding the menhaden fishery were presented to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in anticipation of their meeting earlier this week.
Most of those letters were endorsing a drastic reduction in catch allotments for this fish, and they worked! On Wednesday, Nov. 9th, representatives from Florida to Maine voted 14 to 3 to reduce the yearly allowable catch by 37%. Commission members must now develop a strategy to implement this rule, and expect it to take effect by May 2013.
The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), also commonly called the pogy or bunker, is a small silvery fish that only grows to be about a foot long. Although small in stature, it is huge in its importance to ocean ecosystems. Historically, these fish would swim in schools 40 miles long, and as recently as 50 years ago, the adult population of menhaden was estimated at 90 billion, providing a plentiful food base for more charismatic animals like tuna, striped bass, bluefish, dolphins, whales, Osprey, and Brown Pelicans.
Aside from being an essential link in the marine food web, they also provide an invaluable ecosystem service. Menhaden are filter feeders, straining plankton from the water. While feeding, adult menhaden can filter nearly 4 gallons of water per minute. Many modern anthropogenic activities lead to excessive phytoplankton growth in near-shore areas; this increased phytoplankton growth has profound negative impacts on the ocean. Their feeding on these plankton blooms may help reduce this impact of human influence.
Menhaden are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, making them a healthy source of protein. They are easily harvested on a large scale. Most of the menhaden caught are reduced into fish oils and fish meal. In the United States, 80% of the fish meal is used in the factory farming industry to feed livestock such chickens, cattle, and pigs comes from menhaden.
These fish have been grossly overfished, and today, Atlantic menhaden populations are less than 10% of what they were historically.
Because of this recent decision, more adults will be left in the ocean to reproduce and hopefully restore the populations to support a healthy, more bountiful ocean. This is a huge step for the menhaden, and for fisheries management as it is a move that will benefit an entire ecosystem rather than just a single species.
Listen to the author of The Most Important Fish in the Sea, H. Bruce Franklin discuss more about the role menhaden play in our oceans.