Because big fish (striped bass, weakfish, bluefish) eat little fish – as do osprey, eagles and other predatory birds, and because little fish filter serve as filter feeders, feeding on phytoplankton and zooplankton – menhaden may be the most important fish in the sea.
But this small, bony and oily member of the herring family has big problems. Atlantic menhaden occupy estuarine and coastal waters along the Eastern Seaboard from central Florida to Nova Scotia. The menhaden fishery is the biggest fishery in the US, 80 percent of which is reduction through a single factory in Reedville, Virginia. This commercial fishing operation takes and processes billions of fish, grinding the haul up for fish meal for applications in fertilizer, dog food, aquaculture, and omega-3 fish oil supplements.
Such a vast operation, conducted mainly in state waters merely three miles from the beach, is not governed by the requirements of the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and is jeopardizing the health of marine ecosystems and recreational fishing opportunities and the public’s water resource in the Atlantic.
The Moore Charitable Foundation has joined the Menhaden Conservation Project, a consortium working to establish guidelines for a sustainable menhaden fishery that will provide everyone on the Atlantic coast with ample fish, both big and small. The Project’s plan is to gather data to reconstruct the menhaden fishery from the 1800s through the 1950s and effectively evaluate stock sustainability and manage resource threats. It will analyze life history and demographic parameters key to stock assessment modeling (e.g., maximum age and natural mortality rate, maturity, length), and evaluate consequences of using alternative parameters to evaluate stocks.
Ultimately the Project will determine ecological reference points in management plans for Menhaden, to be implemented in 2018 – and curb the disappearance of this critically important little fish that effects the ecosystem in big ways.