Small Fish Makes Big Splash

Vacuum transfer of menhaden from purse seine to fishing vessel

The sun shines daily on our blue (71% and rising) planet, and about 5,000 known species of tiny plants (phytoplankton) use that solar energy to transform carbon dioxide and water into sugar, fat and protein. Millions of tons every day. That’s a pretty neat trick of nature, to say the least. Slightly larger zooplankton (animals) graze on the plants, grow and pass their mass up to predators like striped bass, whales and osprey.

Along North America’s Atlantic coast, menhaden (aka bunker, pogy) are arguably the most important plankton predator. People don’t eat menhaden, as the fish are small, bony and oily and have a brief shelf life. Yet each one is a rich packet of embodied solar energy and a nutritious serving for a striped bass, bluefish, osprey, whale or one of many other larger animals.

Fish-science wonks call menhaden a “low trophic level species,” meaning they are at the base of the food chain. Our marine ecosystem needs plenty of menhaden to function properly — to transfer solar energy from plankton to higher-level species.

Probably for thousands of years, people have harvested menhaden for fertilizer and bait. But only during the last 150 years or so have menhaden been the target of industrial-scale fisheries. We take menhaden out of marine food webs to feed cats, dogs, pen-raised salmon and pigs and to enhance various products ranging from lipstick to paint.

Incredibly, until a few days ago, the east coast’s largest fishery — about 403 million pounds of menhaden were harvested last year — was managed with no annual catch limits. That’s highly unusual in the 21st century, and wrong.

For over a decade, scientists have talked about the need to manage fisheries in consideration of whole ecosystems — in other words, tuning harvest levels to ensure that solar energy gets captured by plankton and enough of it flows upward so that fish, whales and birds don’t go hungry. Unfortunately, while scientists were talking, Atlantic menhaden were fished down to historic lows, and mounting evidence suggests negative impacts to predators.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is in charge of the menhaden fishery, reported really bad news in its 2010 stock assessment: the reproductive capacity of Atlantic menhaden is now at just 8% of a (theoretically) unfished population. Sometimes it takes bad news to make good news happen, and since the report was released, the Conservancy and many partners have pushed to the surface both the science and a compelling case for change.

Last week in Boston, in front of a standing-room-only crowd of anglers, conservationists and a sprinkling of lawyers, the commission voted decisively to establish much more conservative harvest limits for menhaden — charting a rebuilding course that could triple the menhaden in our sea.

We commend the commission for its action, which will benefit menhaden, our coastal and marine ecosystem, and the diverse businesses and people who directly and indirectly depend on a healthy menhaden population.

It’s incredibly satisfying to report good news about the ocean — and this is very good news for fish and people — but the story is still being written. Between now and May 2012, the commission will evaluate options, collect public comments, and make rules regarding harvest monitoring and measures to reduce catch. These decisions will either delay progress or help set a global good example for ecosystem-based fishery management.

The Conservancy is ramping up efforts at high-priority places all around our blue planet, addressing ecosystem overfishing in ways that respect and help secure the future for communities that depend on ocean resources.

Let us know in comments below if you have questions or you want to start a conversation about how you can help.

(Image: Vacuum transfer of menhaden from purse seine to fishing vessel. Image source: John Surrick-Chesapeake Bay Foundation/Marine Photobank)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. While learning about the importance of estuaries in my marine biology course, we discussed how menhaden rely on the Chesapeake Bay for reproduction. Of course we touched on the importance, and danger, of the commercially important menhaden fishery. It worried me to hear that there was more or less unregulated fishing of this organism with such varied uses, because it was obvious people were not going to just stop feeding their dogs or raised animals just for a little conservation. This regulation really impressed me and I am glad to see the commission who voted on it did so with vim and vigor. Definitely a step in the right direction and hopefully a precedent to be followed soon with other fisheries like the horse shoe crab.

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